Bush slams murder of Lebanese MP

Hints Syria, Iran behind attack which killed 6 others; Hariri's son calls Syrian regime cowardly.

September 19, 2007 17:07
Bush slams murder of Lebanese MP

beirut bombing. (photo credit: AP)

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora asked the United Nations secretary-general in a letter to add the Ghanem assassination to an international probe into Hariri's slaying and other political crimes in Lebanon. Schools, universities and banks across the country as well as many businesses in Christian areas of Beirut and in the Mount Lebanon region north of the capital were closed Thursday for a day of mourning and to observe a strike called by the Phalange Party. A funeral was to be held Friday. Saniora pledged that Lebanon would not be cowed by the assassination and would press ahead to pick a president. "The hand of terror will not win and will not succeed in subduing us and silencing us," he said in a statement late Wednesday carried by the official news agency. "The Lebanese will not retreat and will have a new president elected by lawmakers, no matter how big the conspiracy was." A Cabinet statement on Thursday vowed that terrorism will not prevail, and the killers would be found. It stressed that presidential elections should be held and called on lawmakers to attend Tuesday's session. Other anti-Syrian leaders also vowed not to back down, and the majority coalition planned a meeting later Thursday to come up with a strategy. "We will not accept a power vacuum, regardless of the reasons," vowed Phalange leader Karim Pakradouni. US President George W. Bush condemned the murder of pro-Lebanese government lawmaker, Antoine Ghanem, who was killed in an explosion in Beirut on Wednesday. Bush hinted that Syria and Iran were responsible for the attack, promising that the US would continue to stand behind Lebanon and support its opposition to Syrian and Iranian efforts to destabilize the country. The powerful bomb killed Ghanem and six others Wednesday in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, threatening to derail Parliament's already deeply divided effort to elect Lebanon's next president in voting due to start in days. The 64-year-old member of the right-wing Christian Phalange party, was the eighth anti-Syrian figure and fourth lawmaker from the majority assassinated since 2005, reducing the ruling coalition's margin in Parliament. Members of the coalition held Syria responsible for Ghanem's death, which came only two days after he returned to Lebanon. Damascus denied the accusations of involvement, as it has done for each of the past seven assassinations. Security officials said 67 people were wounded in Wednesday's blast, half of which have left the hospital. The explosion occurred at rush hour on a busy street in the Sin el-Fil district, severely damaging nearby buildings, setting several cars on fire and leaving the street littered with blood and debris. Bystanders watched in shock as ambulances and civil defense workers searched for victims. Explosive experts were seen sifting through the engine of Ghanem's car, which was blown at least 50 meters (165 feet) by the force of the explosion. A security official said the bomb was likely detonated by remote control near Ghanem's car. "I have never seen a more cowardly regime than that of Bashar Assad's," said lawmaker Saad Hariri, blaming the Syrian president for Ghanem's death. Hariri heads the anti-Syrian majority in Parliament, a role he stepped into after his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed by a car bomb in 2005. Cabinet member Ahmed Fatfat also blamed Syria for the attack, saying Damascus wanted to derail recent efforts by majority and opposition leaders to begin presidential elections on Sept. 25. "It is the only regime that does not want presidential elections in Lebanon to be held," Fatfat told The Associated Press. Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud also implied Ghanem's death was meant to undermine the upcoming elections, saying "it is no coincidence that whenever there are positive signs" that someone is killed. Syria was quick to condemn the attack, which it said aimed at sabotaging efforts by the Lebanese people to reach agreement. "This criminal act aims at undermining efforts paid by Syria and others to achieve Lebanese national accord," Syria's state-run news agency SANA quoted an anonymous Syrian official as saying. The assassination of anti-Syrian figures began in 2005 with the death of Hariri, the former prime minister. Hariri's death sparked massive protests that helped bring an end to Syria's nearly 30-year domination of Lebanon. Damascus was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005, and a government led by anti-Syrian politicians was elected. Since then, the government of US-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has been locked in a power struggle with the opposition, led by Syria's ally Hizbullah. Government supporters have accused Syria of seeking to end Saniora's slim majority in parliament by killing off lawmakers in his coalition. After the assassination of Lebanese Parliament member Walid Eido in June, many majority legislators had to leave the country to spend the summer abroad for security reasons. Others who stayed in Lebanon undertook extra security measures. Ghanem was traveling Wednesday in a car with regular license plates, his blue plate hidden in the trunk, apparently as a security measure. Cabinet member Fatfat told the AP that Ghanem returned two days ago from abroad where he had been taking refuge for the past two months. Antoine Andraos, another colleague of Ghanem, said Ghanem called him this afternoon asking for a bulletproof car, a TV station linked to Hariri reported. According to security officials, a landmark hotel near the Parliament building in downtown Beirut has been rented for majority members to protect them during the 60-day presidential election process, which begins Tuesday. Wednesday's bombing heightens tensions before the presidential vote that already threatens to throw the country into deeper turmoil. Many fear divisions over the presidency could lead to the creation of two rival governments, a grim reminder of the last two years of the 1975-90 civil war when army units loyal to competing administrations battled it out. Lahoud is due to step down from the presidency by Nov. 23, and government supporters see the vote as the opportunity to put one of their own in the post. Hizbullah and its allies have vowed to block any candidate they don't approve of - and they can do so by boycotting the vote, preventing the necessary two-thirds quorum. If no candidate is agreed on by the time Lahoud steps down, Saniora and his Cabinet would automatically take on executive powers. If that happens, opposition supporters have said Lahoud might appoint a second government, a step many fear would break up the country. With Ghanem's death, Saniora supporters hold 68 of parliament's 128 seats, compared to the opposition's 59.

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