WORLD / Middle East
Lebanon Industry Minister shot dead(Reuters)
Updated: 2006-11-22 06:11
BEIRUT - Gunmen on Tuesday assassinated Lebanese Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, an outspoken critic of Syria, plunging Lebanon deeper into a crisis over ties with its dominant neighbor.
At least three gunmen rammed their car into Gemayel's vehicle near Beirut, then leapt out and riddled it with bullets, firing at Gemayel with silencer-equipped automatic weapons at point-blank range in a Christian neighborhood, witnesses said.
The son of assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri blamed Syria for the killing in the Sin el-Fil area, but Damascus condemned the murder.
The assassination is certain to heighten tensions in Lebanon amid a deep political crisis pitting the anti-Syrian majority against the pro-Damascus opposition led by Hezbollah, which is determined to topple what it sees as a pro-U.S. government.
Gemayel, 34, was rushed to hospital where he later died of his wounds. Hundreds of angry and weeping family members and supporters gathered at the hospital.
"We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place," Saad al-Hariri, whose father Rafik was killed in a suicide bombing last year, said shortly after Gemayel was shot dead.
"Syria strongly condemns the killing," the official Syrian news agency SANA said. The Shi'ite group Hezbollah also condemned the "low criminal act" and urged an investigation.
Many ordinary Lebanese were shocked by the murder and feared the worst.
"I'm just waiting for the next minister to be assassinated. This is definitely not the end," said Johnny Ghoossain, 25.
The assassination came after a devastating July-August conflict in south Lebanon between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, which accused the pro-U.S. government of backing its opponents in order to weaken it as a political and military force.
It also coincided with U.N. Security Council moves to create a tribunal to try those suspected of Hariri's assassination.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Gemayel's killing would make Lebanon more determined to set up the international court. Many Lebanese blame Syria for the killing of Hariri in a suicide truck bombing in February 2005.
Damascus denies involvement, though a U.N. commission investigating the assassination has implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials.
U.S. President George W. Bush condemned Gemayel's shooting and urged an investigation to "identify those people and those forces behind the killing." French, British, Italian and other Western leaders all condemned the murder.
Six pro-Syrian ministers resigned from Siniora's cabinet this month and with Gemayel's death, the deaths or resignations of two more ministers would bring down the government.
Pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies are preparing to take to the streets to topple Siniora's government, arguing it has lost its legitimacy since Shi'ite Muslims are no longer represented.
After Gemayel's slaying, angry anti-Syrian protesters in the Christian town of Zahle in east Lebanon blocked streets and shouted slogans against Hezbollah and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, but Gemayel's father urged against revenge.
The anti-Syrian coalition later told supporters to prepare to take to the streets peacefully. Any protests and counter-protests would raise the specter of confrontations.
"I have one wish, that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect this country," former President Amin Gemayel told reporters outside the hospital where his son's body was taken.
"We don't want reactions and revenge," he said.
Gemayel, elected to parliament in 2000 and again in 2005, is the fourth Lebanese anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since former prime minister Hariri's killing.
Gemayel, industry minister, was a member of the Christian Phalange Party founded by his grandfather. His uncle Bashir Gemayel was killed in September 1982 after he was elected president during Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
The Christian Phalange party controlled one of the largest militias fighting in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud pledged to find those responsible for Gemayel's murder, calling it a "terrorist act."
Lebanon declared three days of mourning and Gemayel's funeral will take place at 1100 GMT on Thursday.
One of two bodyguards hurt in the attack died of his wounds.