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Lebanon slaying deepens Christian political rift

Written by: Staff

BEIRUT, Nov 23 (Reuters) The slaying of a Lebanese Christian minister has cornered leading Christian politician Michel Aoun, his alliance with the Syria-backed opposition enraging many who blame Damascus for the killing.

Presidential hopeful Aoun, leader of the largest Christian bloc in parliament, was one of the first targets of anger after the killing of Pierre Gemayel on Tuesday. Aoun posters were burned in Christian areas and his offices were targeted.

''We let them hang Aoun's picture here. We thought, OK, he's a Christian like us. But yesterday was enough. This doesn't happen to Pierre Gemayel,'' said Annie Yacoubian, 26, in Christian east Beirut. ''They took them down and burned them.'' Aoun was one of the loudest voices against Syrian involvement in Lebanon during more than a decade of exile in France, where he fled after losing a battle with Syrian forces at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon last year let the former general return home, where he received a hero's welcome from tens of thousands of supporters.

But he made a political about-turn this year by striking an alliance with Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran. That put him at odds with the anti-Syrian majority including Lebanon's main other Christian parties.

Gemayel's allies immediately blamed Syria for his killing -- the fourth slaying of an anti-Syrian figure since Rafik al-Hariri was killed in February 2005. Syria condemned the assassination.

''I don't think Aoun will come out of this looking good,'' Lebanese commentator Michael Young said. ''Aoun has already many people questioning his strategy.

''DEAL WITH THE DEVIL'' ''He still has his supporters. But whatever shows the Syrians or their allies in a negative light doesn't make Aoun look good.'' Aoun's alliance with Hezbollah and its ally Amal has provided the Shi'ite-led opposition with a strong Christian seal of approval. Aoun has joined Hezbollah in calling for a change of government.

''Aoun wants his special relationship with Hezbollah to give him the non-Christian support necessary to be president,'' said historian Kamal Salibi. ''If he loses his street, he'll be much less use to Hezbollah.'' But switching to the side of the anti-Syrian majority might not be an option for the bespectacled politician. ''If he switches allegiances, who is going to make him president?'' Salibi asked.

Lebanon's parliament is due to elect a new president some time before the end of September. The post is reserved for a Maronite Christian in Lebanon where government posts are allocated along religious lines.

Aoun, like other Lebanese leaders, called for calm after the assassination. He was one of the immediate targets of rage.

Supporters of Gemayel's Phlange Party and Samir Geagea's Christian Lebanese Forces tried to attack an office of Aoun's party in the Christian town of Zahle. They were restrained by security forces and calls for calm from their local leaders.

''Aoun has no morals. He's a traitor to Christians. He's making a deal with the devil to reach the presidency,'' said Eliya Azzar, a Geagea supporter in east Beirut.

Sitting in a square where Lebanese Forces and Phalange flags fluttered from lampposts, he predicted clashes between Aoun supporters and other Christians. Fighters loyal to Aoun and Geagea battled each other towards the end of the civil war.

''You have lots of radicals in Christian areas. You have lots of gangs. The assassination is the spark for coming clashes,'' he said.

Reuters SBA VP0422

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