BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – With Independence Day celebrations canceled, Lebanon was engulfed in fear and gloom Wednesday as it prepared to bury Christian leader and Cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, whose assassination threatened to push a country in political crisis over the brink.
Schools and shops were closed and traffic was light as Gemayel’s coffin, draped in the flag of his Phalange Party, was driven to the family’s home in Bikfaya for mourning ceremonies before the funeral scheduled for Thursday. A small crowd of mourners, some carrying Lebanese flags, walked slowly behind the vehicle carrying the coffin.
Gemayel, minister of industry and scion of a prominent political family, was killed Tuesday when two cars blocked his vehicle at an intersection in the suburbs of Beirut and an assassin shot him numerous times through a side window of his car.
His killing — the fifth murder of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon in two years — immediately drew condemnations from all quarters.
The United States condemned the slaying as an act of terrorism. President George W. Bush accused Syria and Iran of seeking to undermine the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, though he stopped short of blaming them for the 34-year-old Gemayel’s slaying. Syria too condemned the assassination and denied any role in it.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud went on national TV late Tuesday to announce that Wednesday’s Independence Day celebrations had been canceled.
“I was supposed to deliver today the independence speech but we were surprised by this disaster which hit all the Lebanese,” Lahoud said, adding that the murder was part of a “conspiracy” that began with the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“Therefore, I tell the Lebanese that today is the time for them to unite or else all of Lebanon will lose,” Lahoud said. He offered condolences to Gemayel’s father, former President Amin Gemayel, a political opponent of Lahoud.
“We will do the impossible to uncover the criminals because they are against all the Lebanese,” Lahoud said.
Politicians from all sides scrambled to contain the fallout of the assassination, urging calm amid fears of an outbreak of the brutal violence between Lebanon’s sharply divided communities that marked the 1975-90 civil war. The leading Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah and its allies have challenged the Sunni-Muslim backed prime minister, threatening to topple the government unless they receive effective veto powers in the Cabinet.
Prime Minister Saniora called for unity and warned that “sedition” was being planned against Lebanon. In a TV address on Tuesday night, he linked Gemayel’s slaying to the issue that sparked the crisis with Hezbollah: a plan for an international court to try suspects in the Hariri assassination. He said Lebanese should rally behind the government’s backing for such a court.
Saniora’s government is dominated by opponents of Syria. Many see the demands as a bid by Damascus to restore its influence in its smaller neighbor — and by Hezbollah to boost its power, riding on increased popularity among Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim population following this summer’s war with Israel.
Washington sees Lebanon as a key front in its attempts to isolate Syria and Iran, and following the assassination, Bush underlined his support for “the Saniora government and its democracy, and we support the Lebanese people’s desire to live in peace.”
The assassination came hours before the U.N. Security Council was expected to endorse a draft document creating the international court to try suspects in the Hariri murder, in which an U.N. investigation has implicated several Syrian officials. The document then goes to the Lebanese government for final approval.
Six members from Hezbollah and its allies quit Saniora’s 24-member Cabinet earlier this month before it gave its backing to the court, sparking the political crisis. The draft of the international tribunal also says if political assassinations were found linked to Hariri’s murder the court will have jurisdiction to try suspects in those attacks as well.