Thursday, November 23, 2006

Assassination sparks civil war fears

From The Australian, by Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent, November 23, 2006 [emphasis added]...

LEBANON stood on the brink of civil war yesterday after the assassination of an anti-Syrian cabinet minister triggered calls for revenge among enraged Christians and pushed the Government closer to collapse.

Pierre Gemayel, Industry Minister and heir to the legacy of one of the country's most powerful and hardline Christian dynasties, died in a hail of bullets on a busy Beirut highway in a killing that Christian and Sunni leaders blamed on Syria.

....The assassination coincided with threats by the leader of the pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement to topple Lebanon's Government, raising fears that soaring tensions between the country's rival factions could rapidly spiral out of control.

Mr Gemayel, 34, was the fourth outspoken anti-Syrian critic to be killed in Lebanon since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. He was also the seventh member to be removed from the unstable cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose tenuous grip on power now hangs on two ministers. The resignation from the cabinet last week of a bloc of six ministers from Hezbollah and the allied Shia group Amal sharply destabilised the Government.

Mr Gemayel was a key member of the anti-Syrian bloc, which clings to a small majority amid a resurgent grab for power in Lebanon by Damascus and a naked bid to derail political support for the establishment of a special international tribunal to try the killers of Hariri.

A UN report released last year incriminated senior Syrian regime figures and their Lebanese proxies for the slaying of Hariri on the Beirut waterfront on Valentine's Day, 2005. Within one month, Syria was forced to end its 30-year overlord role in Lebanon - a presence it has been trying to re-establish in the wake of Hezbollah's war with Israel this year.

Hezbollah is strongly backed by Syria and Iran .... Mr Siniora has called for calm across Lebanon, warning that pro-Syrian forces would benefit if violent protests broke out in Beirut. "This attack against a symbol of freedom in Lebanon ... makes us more determined to set up the international court, the tribunal that would stop the criminals and is the means to protect all Lebanese," he said.

"I pledge to you that your blood will not go in vain," Mr Siniora said, eulogising Mr Gemayel. "We will not let the murderers control the fate of Lebanon and the future of its children."
Saad Hariri, son of the slain Hariri, broke down in tears on CNN as he accused Syria of seeking to block the formation of the tribunal by destabilising Lebanon. "We see the hands of Syria in this," he said. "They are a bunch of killers and assassins and they need to be brought to the international tribunal."

US President George W. Bush pointed a finger at Iran and Syria, saying the US stood firmly behind Mr Siniora despite mounting calls for Washington to seek Syria's help in stabilising Iraq.

Warning of a potentially grave period of instability descending on the region's most unstable democracy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "We need to do everything we can, particularly at this moment, to protect democracy in Lebanon and the premiership of Prime Minister Siniora."

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