BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanese politicians and thousands of mourners turned out on Friday for the funeral of anti-Syrian MP Antoine Ghanem, whose assassination has raised tensions ahead of a looming presidential election.
“Lebanon’s soil has been drenched with the blood of our martyrs, but those who wish evil for Lebanon, who will not stop until they are deterred, will be deterred,” vowed former president Amin Gemayel, fighting back tears, as he addressed mourners packed inside the Sacred Heart church east of Beirut.
“Your (Ghanem’s) martyrdom is but an incentive to carry out the presidential election,” added Gemayel, referring to a parliament vote next Tuesday to replace current pro-Syrian head of state Emile Lahoud, whose mandate expires in November.
Apart from Gemayel, whose own son industry minister Pierre was murdered last November, ruling majority leaders Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea and others attended the funeral amid tight security.
Gemayel said he feared the long-running crisis between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition would lead to Lebanon’s division, and charged that the presidency standoff was “just meant to end the Christian role at the top of the state.”
The presidency is traditionally reserved for Lebanon’s Maronites, the country’s largest Christian community.
In an emotional eulogy, Ghanem’s eldest daughter Mounia said: “I want to address the killer with my own sharp weapon — prayer.
“My father dedicated his life to Lebanon until his martyrdom.”
After the ceremony, Ghanem’s coffin, draped in the Lebanese and his Christian Phalange party flags, was taken for burial along with those of his two bodyguards.
Thousands of men, women and children as well as foreign diplomats attended the funeral of the 64-year-old member of parliament.
Many mourners wept and waved national or party flags as brass bands played to pay their last respects.
Women threw rice and rose petals from balconies as the cortege made its way from the mortuary of the Lebanese Canadian hospital, near the site of Wednesday’s bomb blast that killed Ghanem and four others, to Furn el-Shebak.
“Ya habibi (my love), Ya habibi,” Ghanem’s widow Lola cried out as his coffin was carried from the hospital.
“We are all desperate,” said mourner Siham, in her 40s. “We can’t keep burying martyrs. Is there no end to these assassinations?”
Flags flew at half mast and schools and businesses were shut after the government declared a day of official mourning for the funeral.
In Washington US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her French counterpart Bernard Kouchner condemned the killing.
“The United States and France condemn in the strongest possible terms the brutal murder of Antoine Ghanem,” they said in a joint statement after talks.
“It is crucial that the presidential election in Lebanon be held according to the Lebanese constitutional schedules and norms,” they said.
Ghanem was the eighth anti-Syrian politician to be assassinated since the February 2005 murder of five-times prime minister and billionaire tycoon Rafiq Hariri.
Pro-government MPs in Beirut have pointed the finger of blame at Syria, which denied any involvement and called the bombing a “criminal act” aimed at undermining efforts at a rapprochement with Lebanon.
Leaders from across the political spectrum have vowed to press ahead with the controversial presidential vote on Tuesday despite Ghanem’s killing.
Senior Phalangist official Joseph Abu Khalil said the attack was clearly aimed at cutting the number of pro-government MPs to derail the poll.
Ghanem’s death reduced the government’s support in parliament to 68 out of the remaining 127 MPs, with numbers set to play a key role in the vote.
Opposition MP Ali Khreiss said “Ghanem’s assassination is meant to harm stability in Lebanon.
“It is meant to foil Nabih Berri’s initiative,” he said, referring to parliament speaker’s proposal that the opposition was ready to drop a demand for a unity government in return for a compromise on the new president.
“We have to confront the series of ugly crimes by being united and working with Berri’s initiative which is the only way to end Lebanon’s crisis,” he said.
Failure by the parties to choose a consensus candidate for the presidency could spark a dangerous power vacuum or even the naming of two rival governments — a grim reminder of the final years of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, head of the UN inquiry into the Hariri murder, visited the bomb scene on Friday after Prime Minister Fuad Siniora urged UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday to ask that the latest killing be included in the probe.