BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) -Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian politician and scion of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian family, was gunned down Tuesday in an assassination that heightened tensions amid a showdown between opponents and allies of Syria that threatens to topple the U.S.-backed government.
Gemayel, 34, was the fifth anti-Syrian figure to be killed in the past two years and the first member of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to be slain. A car rammed his vehicle from behind and then a gunman stepped out and shot him at point-blank range, his Phalange Party radio station and Lebanon’s official news agency reported.
Footage from the scene showed Gemayel’s car, the driver’s-side window dotted by about a dozen bullet holes, and the second car behind it with a crumpled hood.
The assassination, in an afternoon shooting in Gemayel’s mainly Christian constituency of Jdeideh, threatens further instability in Lebanon at a time when Hezbollah and other parties allied with Syria are planning a massing wave of street protests unless Saniora reforms his government to give them more power.
In Washington, the State Department denounced the assassination as terrorism and an attempt to intimidate Saniora’s government. The United States has accused Syria and Iran of plotting to overthrow the government, which is dominated by anti-Syrian politicians.
“We are shocked by this assassination,” Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters. He said it is very important that those who would use violence to divide Lebanon not be allowed to succeed. “We will give full support to the Saniora government in the days and weeks ahead,” Burns said.
Syria also condemned the killing. “This despicable crime aims to destroy stability and peace in Lebanon,” the state news agency said, affirming Syria’s support for stability, security and unity.
Damascus’ opponents in Lebanon have accused Syria of being behind previous assassinations, particularly that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive explosion in downtown Beirut in February 2005. Syria has denied any role.
Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son and leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, broke off a televised news conference after hearing Gemayel had been shot.
In an interview with CNN, Hariri praised him as “a friend, a brother to all of us” and appeared to break down after saying: “We will bring justice to all those who killed him.”
Hariri implicitly blamed Damascus for the assassination, saying, “We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place.”
Pierre Gemayel was a rising star in the party and expected to carry the mantle of the political family. His father, Amin, served as president between 1982 and 1988. His grandfather, the late Pierre Gemayel, led the right-wing Christian Phalange Party that fielded the largest Christian militia during the 1975-90 civil war between Christians and Muslims.
Amin Gemayel was elected by parliament after the assassination of his brother, Bashir, who was chosen president but was killed a few days before he was to take office.
The younger Pierre Gemayel was a prominent figure in Lebanon’s anti-Syrian bloc, which dominates Saniora’s Cabinet and the parliament — and which is now locked in a power struggle with the Muslim Shiite Hezbollah and its allies.
On Sunday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah threatened a wave of street protests aimed at bringing down the government if it ignores the group’s demand to form a national unity Cabinet, in which Hezbollah and its allies would have considerable influence and would be able to block major decisions.
Nasrallah accused Saniora’s government of falling under the influence of the President Bush’s administration and called it “illegitimate” and “unconstitutional.”
Gemayel’s assassination was the first since Gibran Tueni, prominent anti-Syrian newspaper editor and lawmaker, was killed in a car bomb in December. In June 2005, the journalist and activist Samir Kassir and former Communist Party leader George Hawi were killed in separate car bombings in June last year.