Lebanon Nervous After Assassination

The coffin and a poster of assassinated Christian politician Pierre Gemayel are carried towards the family home in Bikfaya, Lebanon Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2006.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Lebanon plunged into fear and gloom Wednesday as mourners came to this mountain town to pay last respects to a Christian politician, whose assassination threatened to push the country's political crisis over the brink.

Embattled prime minister Fouad Saniora urged Lebanese to unite and former president Amin Gemayel, the father of the victim, called on supporters not to resort to violence, reports CBS News' Edward Yeranian. But overnight, angry young men burned tires and blocked traffic in Christian neighborhoods, while some churches held all-night vigils, amid tense grief among Christian supporters of the slain leader. Police and soldiers patrolled key thoroughfares, searching vehicles for weapons, to prevent further bloodshed.

The government cancelled Independence Day celebrations and people huddled around televisions at home to watch the live broadcast of dignitaries, members of the Phalange Party, and hundreds of villagers walking past the coffin of Pierre Gemayel and pay condolences to his father in the family home.

Pierre Gemayel, 34, minister of industry, 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.

His killing — the fifth murder of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon in two years — drew condemnation from all quarters, but also calls for restraint.

Pope Benedict XVI urged Lebanese to turn away from the violence that has so often wracked the country.

"In the face of the dark forces that try to destroy the country, I call on all Lebanese not to be overwhelmed by hatred, but to strengthen national unity, justice and reconciliation," the Pope told pilgrims Wednesday in St. Peter's Square in Rome.

Lebanon's Maronite Catholic Church, to which the Gemayel family belonged, and Amin Gemayel also said there should be no attempts at retaliation.

"We don't want an outburst of emotions and revenge," Gemayel said Tuesday night outside the hospital where his son died.

The United States denounced the assassination as an act of terrorism. President Bush accused Syria and Iran of trying to undermine Lebanon's government, but he stopped short of blaming them for the killing. Syria too condemned the assassination and denied any role in it.

But Syria's opponents in Lebanon and allies of Gemayel pointed the finger at Damascus.

"It seems the Syrian regime is continuing the assassinations," Walid Jumblatt, the political leader of Lebanon's Druse community, told a news conference Wednesday. "I expect more assassinations, but whatever they do, we are here and we will triumph."

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said Gemayel's murder was part of a "conspiracy" that began with the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"I tell the Lebanese that today is the time for them to unite or else all of Lebanon will lose," Lahoud said in a TV address late Tuesday, when he announced the cancellation of Independence Day ceremonies.

"We will do the impossible to uncover the criminals because they are against all the Lebanese," Lahoud said.

Saniora also went on TV Tuesday night to appeal for unity and warn that Lebanon was facing "sedition."

Schools and shops were closed and traffic was light Wednesday morning as Gemayel's coffin, draped in the flag of his Phalange Party, was driven up to the mountains for mourning ceremonies at the family home before the funeral scheduled for Thursday.

Motorists waving the Phalange Party flag — white with a green Cedar tree in the middle — followed the hearse. The cortege stopped at the entrance of Bikfaya where, next to a statue of Pierre's grandfather, pallbearers lifted the casket on to their shoulders and carried it to the stone-walled house.

Supporters jolted the coffin in a traditional expression of extreme anguish as it passed through hundreds of mourners, many of whom were weeping.

In the Gemayel home, nuns and priests said prayers around the closed coffin as the relatives received condolences. Standing next to Amin Gemayel was Pierre's cousin, Nadim Gemayel, who lost his father, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, in a bomb explosion in 1982.

Bikfaya's main street and square were festooned with white ribbons, the color the party flag. And pictures of Pierre, with a black stripe, were posted on walls and car windows.

Young men and women, many carrying Lebanese and Phalange flags, walked through the narrow alleys of the town to the family house in somber mood. "What a loss," said one woman, bursting into tears. A younger girl leaned on her shoulder, weeping.

In a sign of the heightened tensions, some two dozen soldiers and an armored personnel carrier guarded the Bikfaya offices of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party — a pro-Syrian party whose premises were attacked by a mob on Tuesday night.

Anti-Syrian factions allied with the Phalange Party have planned a huge turnout for Thursday's funeral in central Beirut, intending to show their strength as they wage a power struggle against Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian parties.

Hezbollah and its Shiite Muslim allies have challenged the Sunni Muslim-backed prime minister, threatening to call mass demonstrations to bring down the government unless they receive effective veto powers in the Cabinet. The tension has generated fears of a return to the sectarian strife that tore the nation apart in the 1975-90 civil war.

In his TV address, Saniora 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. After the assassination, President 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 approved 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 now 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.

More international reaction poured in Wednesday.

"We want there to be an independent Lebanon and violence must be stopped with the greatest determination," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a speech to the German parliament.