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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Lebanese crowds defy Syria at Gemayel's funeral

BEIRUT, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Lebanese paid tribute to assassinated Christian politician Pierre Gemayel on Thursday, turning his funeral in central Beirut into a display of defiance towards Syria and its Hezbollah allies.

In a sign of how quickly factional and religious divisions in Lebanon can erupt into mass action, hundreds of angry Shi'ite Muslims later took to the streets in Beirut to protest what they said were insults against Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at Gemayel's funeral.

"Nasrallah don't worry, your Shi'ites can drink blood," they chanted as they marched in the southern suburbs, blocking the main road to the airport.

As the protests spread to other districts, Nasrallah appealed to his supporters to end the demonstrations.

"I urge them to leave the streets, more than urge, I beg them to leave the streets. We don't want anyone on the streets at all," Nasrallah said in a telephone call to Hezbollah's television station.

"The situation in the country is very delicate, very sensitive ... we have to act responsibly."

Shortly afterwards protesters dispersed.

Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, had threatened to take to the streets to topple the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora but Gemayel's assassination on Tuesday forced it to put its plans on hold.

Hezbollah officials said the Shi'ite protest was not part of the campaign but a spontaneous act.

Six ministers from Hezbollah and its allies quit the cabinet this month after all-party talks on giving the opposition effective veto power collapsed.

Earlier in the day, raucous crowds carrying Lebanese flags and those of Christian factions, including Gemayel's Phalange Party, swarmed around Beirut's St George Cathedral, where top Maronite cleric Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir conducted the rites.

Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders, standing together behind bullet-proof glass, called for solidarity in the struggle against the influence of Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

The leaders had accused Syria of killing the industry minister, the 34-year-old scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite clans. Damascus condemned the assassination.

"We will not rest until all the criminals are brought to justice," Gemayel's 64-year-old father, Amin, told mourners.

Gemayel was shot dead on Tuesday in the sixth killing of an anti-Syrian figure in less than two years in Lebanon.

The government says its Syrian-backed opponents, led by Hezbollah, want to weaken it and to scupper an international tribunal under U.N. auspices that is being set up to try suspects in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri.

Official sources said Siniora called his depleted cabinet for a meeting on Saturday to approve plans for the court. He also appealed to the resigned ministers to return to cabinet.

Hezbollah rejected his offer.


"Our suspicions are big that Syria is behind this (killing) to destroy national unity, to destroy us living together and to fuel sectarianism," Sunni mourner Ghada Hakim, 63, told Reuters at the funeral.

Anger at Syria and resolve to support Lebanon's anti-Syrian majority coalition swept through the crowd. Inside the cathedral, family members wept and prayed over Gemayel's coffin.

Mourners turned out in force but not in the vast numbers of March 14 last year after Hariri's killing, when an outpouring of anti-Syrian anger coupled with international pressure forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years.

"They will not suppress our demands for the truth, justice and the international court," said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Troops and police ringed the cathedral which is next to a huge mosque built by Hariri. His tomb abuts Martyrs' Square.

After the funeral, Gemayel's coffin was driven back to his hometown of Bekfaya in the mountains above Beirut, where it was laid to rest in the family vault.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country has been a strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, was the most prominent foreign dignitary to attend the funeral along with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whose Amal faction is allied to Hezbollah, was the most senior pro-Syrian figure there.

The government, keen to ensure the international tribunal is established, would fall if it lost two more ministers.

The U.N. Security Council approved on Wednesday a Lebanese government request to add Gemayel's killing to the string of previous attacks being investigated by a United Nations inquiry into Hariri's assassination.

U.N. investigators met Lebanese prosecutors and visited the site of Gemayel's assassination where they began initial investigations, Lebanon's government news agency reported.

Early reports by the U.N. inquiry into Hariri's death implicated Syrian security officials and their Lebanese counterparts. Syria denies involvement.
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