Fury on the streets of Lebanon

Hundreds of shocked family friends and supporters converged on St Joseph hospital where the Christian Maronite industry minister died of a gunshot wound to the head after his car was ambushed in a northern suburb.

A bodyguard was also killed in the attack.

The mourning was accompanied by blazing slogans against Syria, Lebanon’s own pro-Damascus President Emile Lahoud, and a Christian opposition leader, General Michel Aoun who has allied himself with the Shiite group Hezbollah.

“Michel Aoun, you are the ally of murderers,” those outside the hospital screamed, telling Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, to “go to Iran”.

Amid the inflamed tempers, huge traffic jams and panic after the latest in a string of deadly attacks on the anti-Syrian camp in divided Lebanon, politicians appealed for calm.

“I ask for this night to be dedicated to prayers for Pierre,” said the victim’s father, former president Amin Gemayel, his voice breaking with emotion, outside the hospital.

“I call on you to remain calm. We do not want instinctive reactions or revenge,” he told the crowd, many of them in tears.

“The Gemayel family has already had its martyrs in Bashir, Maya (Bashir’s daughter), and now Pierre, who has died for Lebanon and for freedom,” said the father.

Pierre Gemayel, 34, was a nephew of president-elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982, who was assassinated in 1982, while the child Maya was murdered in a previous murder attempt against Amin’s brother.

Another key figure in the anti-Syrian camp, Walid Jumblatt, echoed the call.

“We do not want to play the game of the assassins by spreading division and trouble,” he said.

But Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon’s parliament, swiftly pointed the finger of blame at Damascus, the former powerbroker in Beirut, despite its condemnation of the murder.

Street demonstrations

Amid the fears of a confrontation between the rival political camps and mounting calls from the opposition for a change of government, demonstrators took to the streets of several Christian districts.

In Ashrafiyeh, men set ablaze portraits of Aoun, while in the Bickfaya mountain stronghold of the Gemayel family protesters burnt tyres and attacked cars of members of a pro-Syrian party.

Similar scenes took place in Jbail, north of Beirut, where Gemayel supporters burnt tyres and closed off roads waving Lebanese flags and those of the slain minister’s Kataeb party.

Hezbollah, in its condemnation, warned that the assassination was an obvious ploy to push Lebanon back to the days of the 1975-1990 civil war.

“There is no doubt at all that those who carried out this crime want to push Lebanon into chaos … and civil war,” said the powerful opposition group whose standing had been boosted by its summer war with Israel.

Prominent pro-Syrian former minister Sleiman Frangieh said: “We regret the assassination … We hope that his blood would help bring about a true reconciliation” among the Lebanese.

Another opposition figure, who asked not to be named, also condemned the murder.

“We are disgusted with this killing … We were on the eve of massive street demonstrations to bring down the government and now this happens. Obviously it will all have to go on hold,” he said.

Plunged back into mourning, barely three months after the end of the devastating war between Hezbollah and Israel, celebrations for Lebanon’s Independence Day on Wednesday were called off, the military announced.

With tensions running high in the capital, soldiers were out on the streets in force ahead of Wednesday’s funeral of Pierre Gemayel and three days of national mourning.

The anti-Syrian camp called for a massive turnout at Mr Gemayel’s funeral on Thursday. The service will be held in downtown Beirut, before the body is taken to his home village of Bikfaya, in mountains east of the capital, for burial.