Lebanese Minister Pierre Gemayel gunned down in Beirut

pierre gemayel 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
pierre gemayel 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanese politicians accused Syria on Tuesday of standing behind the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian minister and scion of Lebanon's most prominent Christian family. The 34-year-old Gemayel, who served as Industry Minister, was gunned down after he left a church in one of Beirut's suburbs around 4:00 p.m. The assailants rammed their Range Rover vehicle into Gemayel's car, then leapt out and shot him at blank range with silencer-equipped automatic weapons. No group claimed responsibility, but Lebanese leaders rushed to point an accusing finger at Syria. Gemayel, who was hit in the head by several bullets, was rushed by his driver to St. Joseph Hospital, where he died shortly after being admitted. Hundreds of Gemayel's supporters converged on the hospital, chanting slogans against Syria and its Lebanese allies - Hizbullah and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun. Gemayel's father, former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, appealed for calm and urged his followers not to avenge his son's killing. "Our family has been destined to present martyrs for the cause of Lebanon," the father told weeping mourners. "I call upon all those who love Pierre to make this night a night of prayer and to refrain from irresponsible actions." Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the most prominent critics of Syria, told the crowd at the hospital that the murderers were seeking to create sedition among Lebanese. "We will not allow them to achieve their goals," he said in a veiled reference to Syria. "They will not escape punishment and the Lebanese people will eventually be triumphant." Sa'ad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who is also believed to have been killed by the Syrians, interrupted a televised news conference after hearing Gemayel had been shot. Condemning the Syrian government as a "murderous regime," a somber-looking Hariri said: "There is no talk between us and this murderous regime which wants to kill every free Lebanese citizen. Today one of our main believers in a free democratic Lebanon has been killed. "We believe the hands of Syria are all over the place. The people of Lebanon will not give up on the international tribunal (seeking prosecution of those who killed his father). This will make them even more determined. We will bring justice to those who killed Pierre Gemayel." Lebanon's acting Interior Minister Ahmed Fatkat also blamed Syria for the assassination. Samir Geagea, commander of the Christian Lebanese Forces Party, called on Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emil Lahoud, to resign immediately. He too accused Syria of masterminding the killing. Gemayel was the fifth anti-Syrian figure to be killed in the past two years and the first member of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to be slain. His grandfather, the late Pierre Gemayel, led the right-wing Christian Phalange Party that fielded the largest Christian militia during the 1975-90 civil war between Christians and Muslims. His father, Amin Gemayel was elected by parliament after the assassination of his brother, Bashir, who was chosen president but was killed a few days before he was to take office. The younger Pierre Gemayel was a prominent figure in Lebanon's anti-Syrian bloc, which dominates Saniora's Cabinet and the parliament, and which is now locked in a power struggle with Hizbullah and other pro-Syrian forces. The assassination threatens further instability in Lebanon at a time when Hizbullah and other parties allied with Syria are planning a massive wave of street protests unless Saniora reforms his government to give them more power. On Sunday, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah threatened a wave of street protests aimed at bringing down the government if it ignores the group's demand to form a national unity Cabinet, in which Hizbullah and its allies would have considerable influence and would be able to block major decisions. Nasrallah accused Saniora's government of falling under the influence of the US and called it "illegitimate" and "unconstitutional." In Washington, the State Department denounced the assassination as terrorism and an attempt to intimidate Saniora's government. The United States has accused Syria and Iran of plotting to overthrow the government, which is dominated by anti-Syrian politicians. "We are shocked by this assassination," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters. He said it is very important that those who would use violence to divide Lebanon not be allowed to succeed. "We will give full support to the Saniora government in the days and weeks ahead," Burns said. Syria also condemned the killing. "This despicable crime aims to destroy stability and peace in Lebanon," the state news agency said, affirming Syria's support for stability, security and unity. The Security Council statement, drafted by France, "welcomes the determination and commitment of the government of Lebanon to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of this and other assassinations and underlines its determination to support the government of Lebanon in its efforts to this end." France's UN Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere called the assassination "an attempt to destabilize Lebanon" and warned: "There will be no peace without justice in Lebanon." Both Russia and Qatar had raised questions about the constitutionality of the agreement to establish the tribunal, because of the differences between the prime minister and president. But the council agreed Monday that any constitutional issues should be decided by the Lebanese government - not the UN - a decision de La Sabliere reiterated Tuesday. Nonetheless, Qatar's UN Ambassador Nassir Al-Nasser, the only Arab member of the council, while approving the council's letter to Annan, sent a letter of clarification to the council president with his government's position. It states that concluding a UN-Lebanese agreement "requires a constitutional process in Lebanon consisting of many stages not the least important of which is the approval of the president of the Republic of Lebanon and the Lebanese Parliament." "The draft agreement and the statute of the Special Tribunal will not come into force until all such constitutional requirements are met," Al-Nasser wrote in the letter. Bolton agreed with de La Sabliere that the Lebanese government must decide on the tribunal and any constitutional questions. "We think the government of Lebanon is committed to it. All of the factions in Lebanon have said they want the tribunal. The negotiators were appointed by a meeting chaired by president Lahoud," he said. "It's a good agreement... We hope the government of Lebanon is able to follow through on their constitutional procedures and they'll make their decision." Bolton stressed that the dual actions by the Security Council on Tuesday send "an important signal ... in support of the democratic forces in Lebanon." The February 2005 truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others sparked huge protests against Syria, which was widely seen as culpable. Syria denied involvement, but was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence. Asked whether he believed Syria was involved in Gemayel's assassination, Bolton said, "we need to find out all of the facts, but you can take a look at the pattern of who gets assassinated in Lebanon." The first UN chief investigator, Germany's Detlev Mehlis, said the killing's complexity suggested the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role in Hariri's assassination. In one report, Mehlis implicated Brig. Gen. Assaf Shawkat, Syria's military intelligence chief and the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad. His successor, Belgian Judge Serge Brammertz, shied away from naming anyone but has described a very complex operation and said he is following many new leads. Four Lebanese generals, top pro-Syrian security chiefs under Lahoud including his Presidential Guard commander, have been under arrest for 14 months, accused of involvement in Hariri's murder. Bolton said, "the evidence that links the Hariri assassination to the other political assassinations - I think people can draw their own conclusions." Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report