Bush warns Syria after slaying

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meanwhile made a hasty telephone call to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, amid signs of US concern over the fate of the Beirut government which emerged from Lebanon’s ‘cedar revolution.’

“Today we saw again the vicious face of those who hate freedom,” Mr Bush told American troops in Hawaii during a trip home from Asia.

“We strongly condemn the assassination today in Lebanon of Pierre
Gemayel.”

Mr Bush did not apportion direct blame but called for an investigation into “those people and those forces” behind the killing of the anti-Syrian Christian leader.

“We support the Siniora government and its democracy and we support the
Lebanese people’s desire to live in peace and we support their efforts to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence in that important country,” Mr Bush said.

Calls for dialogue

The killing came against a backdrop of global calls, so far resisted by the US, for a dialogue with Syria and Iran over chaos in Iraq.

But Mr Bush’s tone, further bolstered in a written statement on the killing, appeared to cast further doubt on already slim chances of such a diplomatic opening.

“Syria’s refusal to cease and desist from its continuing efforts to destabilise Lebanon’s democratically elected government” was a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, Mr Bush said.

“We also demand that Syria treat Lebanon as a genuinely sovereign neighbour, establishing full diplomatic relations with Lebanon,” he said.

Hariri tribunal approved

The president said the assassination made it even more important for the
United Nations Security Council to seek justice in the killing of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri last year.

Late on Tuesday the Security Council endorsed a blueprint for a tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 murder, French ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said.

US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns earlier branded the killing of Mr Gemayel, gunned down in a Beirut suburb, as an “act of terrorism” aimed at Syria’s opponents in the country.

Ms Rice called the Lebanese prime minister to express condolences and to reiterate the support of the United States for “Lebanese democracy and for the Siniora government,” the State Department said.

America’s ambassador to the UN John Bolton pointed the finger at Syria, noting the string of assassinations of anti-Damascus politicians in Lebanon.

“One can follow the logic there, I think,” Bolton told CNN.

Syria issued its most complete denial of involvement in the killing through its embassy in Washington.

“This charade of blaming Syria for every malicious event in Lebanon has been exposed a long time ago and is, simply, losing all credibility,” the embassy statement said.

“It’s no coincidence that Pierre Gemayel was assassinated on the day the Security Council is discussing a Lebanese issue,” the statement said.

Later, Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha said on CNN that Syria was “categorically not” behind the killing.

Earlier this month, Washington issued an unusually public warning over “mounting evidence” that Iran, Syria and the Shiite militia Hezbollah were plotting assassinations as part of a plan to topple Prime Minister Siniora’s government.

The United States has been a firm backer of Mr Siniora, though tensions emerged during the Israeli war with Hezbollah in Lebanon earlier this year.

Washington has pointed to what it says is Syria’s interference in Lebanon to explain its reluctance to talk directly with the government in Damascus, despite increasing pressure here and abroad for a dialogue over Iraq.

Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus after the Hariri assassination last year, and also accuses Syria of aiding insurgents in Iraq.