Tensions High in Lebanon Hundreds of Thousands Mourn Gemayel

Two days after the assassination of Christian political leader Pierre Gemayel, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese turned out to pay tribute. The rift in the country between pro- and anti-Syrian forces is deepening.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese mourners inundated the streets of Beirut on Thursday to pay tribute to assassinated Christian politician Pierre Gemayel, transforming the funeral into a powerful show of strength for those who oppose Syrian influence in Lebanon. The flag-bedecked coffin of Gemayel, killed in a brazen attack on Tuesday in Beirut, was brought from his hometown of Bikfaya and through the pulsing streets of Beirut to St. George's Cathedral for the service.

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite Church, led the ceremony, which was attended by a number of dignitaries, including French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and the Arab League secretary general. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, a top ally of the pro-Syrian Islamist group Hezbollah also attended in an effort to show national unity.

But not much unity was to be found. Numerous Lebanese politicians and leaders repeated appeals for calm as the country finds itself more polarized than it has been since the end of the civil war, which ran from 1975 to 1990. Demonstrators shouted anti-Syria slogans, waved flags of both Lebanon and of Gemayel's Christian Phalange party, and carried signs reading "We want to live" and "Awaiting justice," according to the AP. Police estimated that as many as 800,000 people attended the rally -- one which many fear could be the trigger for weeks of unrest.

Walid Jumblatt, a major anti-Syrian leader who accuses Damascus of being behind Gemayel's assassination, addressed the crown on Thursday. "They will not take away our determination to live … and to be free," he said. But, perhaps in an effort to keep emotions in check, reminded the crowd: "We are for dialogue."

Lebanese mourners carry the coffin of assassinated Christian politician Pierre Gemayel on Thursday.

Lebanese mourners carry the coffin of assassinated Christian politician Pierre Gemayel on Thursday.

Tuesday's murder of Gemayel, the sixth prominent anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated in less than two years, and Thursday's mass demonstration visit yet more instability on a Lebanon already facing a potentially debilitating political crisis. Following its success in the late summer war with Israel, Hezbollah has been seeking more political influence in Beirut and had withdrawn six ministers from anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fuad Siniora in recent days. The Islamist group had been planning to stage mass protests on Thursday in a bid to topple the government of US-backed Siniora. Those demonstrations were cancelled in light of Gemayel's slaying.

But despite saying it will take no action in coming days, Hezbollah has not backed down. Officials are accusing the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority of taking advantage of Gemayel's death for political ends. "We are on the verge of taking to the streets," warned Hussein Khalil, a top Hezbollah political advisor on Thursday. "The government coalition was in an unenviable position and was in a very big impasse. They needed blood to serve for them as kind of oxygen to give them a new life."

The most recent bone of contention has been the attempt to set up a United Nations tribunal to try the murderers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005 by a massive car bomb which also killed 21 others. The UN Security Council unanimously authorized the creation of such a tribunal on Tuesday, just hours after Gemayel's death, pending Lebanese approval. But while Lebanon's anti-Syrian majority welcome the move, pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has refused to grant his necessary approval. UN investigators have previously indicated that they believe the Syrian government may have helped coordinate Hariri's assassination.

Indeed, a number of the protesters on Thursday carried signs calling for Lahoud's removal while others burned his image. Lahoud declined to attend the ceremony. He stayed at the presidential palace, behind a heavy security cordon out of fear that demonstrators might march on the palace to force him to resign.

Not far from the cathedral where funeral services were held, the sprawling Martyr's Square was packed with anti-Syrian demonstrators. The square was the site of the so-called "Cedar Revolution" which last year saw days of rallies which ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon -- following decades of heavy Syrian military presence in the country. Syria has denied any role in the murder of Gemayel and has condemned the killing.

Gemayel was killed on Tuesday after the car he was riding in was cut off from the front and rammed from behind. Gunmen then sprayed his car with automatic weapon fire. His driver was also killed in the attack.



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