Lebanon cancels Independence Day celebrations following minister assassination
Lebanese Christian minister Pierre Gemayel, an outspoken critic of Syria, was assassinated near Beirut on Tuesday, security sources said. Gemayel escorts said a lone assailant shot the minister in the head at point-blank range from a silencer-equipped gun. Gemayel was rushed to hospital where he later died of his injuries.
One escort said two cars took Gemayel's convoy by surprise. One car rammed his Kia automobile from behind, while an assassin stepped out of another car and shot Gemayel near the Mar Antonios church in the Jdeideh suburb north of Beirut as he drove home.
Gemayel, 34, a member of the Christian Phalange Party and industry minister, was the son of former President Amin Gemayel, who urged his followers to excersice restraint and refrain from vengeance. "Pierre was martyred for the sake of a cause, for the sake of freedom and for the sake of Lebanon," the ex-President said.
Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud condemned Gemayel's killing, stating it was part of the "conspiracy that started with (ex-Premier Rafic) Hariri's assassination." Lahoud vowed to find the culprits and urged unity among the Lebanese.
Premier Fuad Saniora summoned the ministers for an emergency meeting. He warned that the murder "will not terrorize us," vowing "not to let the criminals control Lebanon's destiny." Saniora also urged the Lebanese to stay united in order to safeguard Lebanon.
The head of the March-14 alliance, Saad Hariri, immediately placed responsibility for the assassination of Gemayel on Syria. The Syrian regime "is trying to kill every free person" in Lebanon. "The cycle (of killings) has resumed," he said. Gemayel is the fifth anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated in the past two years in Lebanon.
On its part, Damascus strongly denounced the assassination. "This horrible crime is aimed at destabilizing solidity and civil security in Lebanon," an official source told Sana, noting "Syria's keenness on Lebanon's security and the unity of his sons as well as keeping Lebanon's civil peace."
Hizbullah also denounced the murder. "Those who committed this crime want to push Lebanon toward chaos, despair and civil war," said a statement read on Hizbullah'a Al-Manar television.
In Washington, the State Department denounced the assassination as terrorism and an attempt to intimidate Saniora's government. "We are shocked by this assassination," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters. "We will give full support to the Saniora government in the days and weeks ahead," Burns said.
Following the news, angry protesters in the Christian town of Zahle in eastern Lebanon blocked off streets and shouted slogans against HIzbUllah and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun. Angry Christian protesters also burned tires in Ashrafiyeh and destroyed cars of supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in Bikfaya, Gemayel's hometown.
Lebanon, which will observe three days of mourning, put off celebrations scheduled for Wednesday to mark Independence Day as Gemayel's funeral will take place at 1 p.m.