Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian politician and scion of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian family, was gunned down Tuesday in a carefully orchestrated assassination that heightened tensions between the U.S.-backed government and the militant Hezbollah.
Anti-Syrian politicians quickly accused Damascus, as they have in previous assassinations of Lebanese opponents of its larger neighbor. Gemayel, 34, an outspoken opponent of the Syrian-allied Hezbollah, was the fifth anti-Syrian figure killed in the past two years and the first member of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to be slain.
The assassination, in Gemayel’s mainly Christian constituency of Jdeideh, threatens further instability in Lebanon at a time when Hezbollah and other parties allied with Syria are planning street protests unless Saniora gives them more power.
The United States denounced the killing, calling it “an act of terrorism.”
Saniora went on national television to call for unity and warned that “sedition” was being planned against Lebanon. He linked the slaying to the issue that sparked the crisis with Hezbollah: plans to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri before an international court.
“I pledge to you that your blood will not go in vain,” Saniora said, eulogizing Gemayel. “We will not let the murderers control the fate of Lebanon and the future of its children.”
Gemayel, Lebanon’s industry minister and a member of the Phalange Party, had just left a church and was traveling through Jdeideh when a vehicle in front of him slammed to a stop, causing his car to ram it, security officials said. Witnesses said Gemayel’s car was also struck from behind.
Three gunmen stepped out of the other vehicles and shot Gemayel at point-blank range with automatic weapons, security officials said.
Video showed Gemayel’s car, which apparently had been shot at from both sides: The passenger-side window was shattered and the driver’s-side window was dotted with about a dozen bullet holes, and the front hood was crumpled.
Bush points to Iran, Syria
Gemayel’s driver, who was wounded but survived, rushed the gravely injured politician to a nearby hospital. Soon afterward, Voice of Lebanon — the Phalange-run radio station — reported Gemayel was dead — the fifth member of his family to die in violence.
President Bush denounced the assassination as an attempt to intimidate Saniora’s government.
“We support the Saniora government and its democracy and we support the Lebanese people’s desire to live in peace,” Bush said in Honolulu. “And we support their efforts to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence in that important country.”
Bush stopped short of specifically blaming Iran or Syria, calling for a full investigation to identify “those people and those forces” behind the killing.
In Washington, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said: “We view it as an act of terrorism. We also view it as an act of intimidation.”
Syria, Hezbollah deny involvement
Damascus’ opponents in Lebanon have accused Syria of being behind previous assassinations, particularly that of Hariri, who was killed in a bombing in Beirut in February 2005. Syria has denied those claims.
Syria called the assassination “a despicable crime,” and Hezbollah also condemned it. “Those who committed this crime want to push Lebanon toward chaos, despair and civil war,” said a statement read on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television.
A stunned Amin Gemayel, the slain lawmaker’s father and Lebanon’s former president, urged his supporters to observe a night of “prayer and reflection over the meaning of martyrdom.”
“We don’t want an outburst of emotions and revenge,” he said outside St. Joseph’s hospital, where his son died. “He was martyred for the cause of Lebanon and we want this cause to triumph.”
Hundreds gathered at the hospital, and supporters railed against Hezbollah and Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah-allied Christian leader who is a rival of the Phalange.
Wael Abu Faour, an anti-Syrian lawmaker, told Al-Jazeera: “We directly accuse the Syrian regime of assassinating Gemayel and hold (Syrian) President Bashar Assad responsible for this assassination ... aimed at sending Lebanon into a civil war.”
In an interview with CNN, Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son and leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, implicitly blamed Damascus, saying, “We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place.” He said Gemayel was “a friend, a brother to all of us” and appeared to break down after saying: “we will bring justice to all those who killed him.”
Gemayel’s death came hours before a deadline for the U.N. Security Council to approve a letter endorsing an agreement with Lebanon to create a tribunal to prosecute Rafik Hariri’s suspected killers.
Ahead of the deadline, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the assassination showed why a tribunal to prosecute those responsible for political killings in Lebanon needs to be established. He grew angry at the suggestion that the process be delayed until Lebanon was more stable.
“They’re killing people in Lebanon. They’re assassinating political leaders. Not the time to seek justice? There may be those on the Security Council who say it. Let then step forward and say it,” he said.
Four Lebanese generals, top pro-Syrian security chiefs, have been under arrest for 14 months, accused of involvement in Hariri’s murder.
“I think the facts need to be developed,” Bolton said when asked about Syria’s involvement in Gemayal’s killing. But, he said, given “the evidence that links the Hariri assassination to the other political assassinations, I think people can draw their own conclusions.”
Descended from line of leaders
Pierre Gemayel was expected to carry the mantle of the political family. Amin Gemayel, his father and the current Phalange leader, was Lebanon’s president between 1982 and 1988. His grandfather, the late Pierre Gemayel, led the right-wing Christian Phalange Party that fielded the largest Christian militia and was allied with Israel during the 1975-90 civil war between Christians and Muslims.
Amin Gemayel’s brother, Bashir, was elected president in 1982 but was assassinated days before taking office. Two of Amin Gemayel’s nephews and Bashir’s daughter were killed in the 1970s and 1980s.
The slain 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 the Muslim Shiite Hezbollah and its allies. He was elected first in 2000, then re-elected in 2005.
Hezbollah calls for protests
Christians make up about 35 percent of Lebanese, down from estimated 55-60 percent before the 1975 civil war. The decline is attributed to emigration of Christians and higher birth rates among Muslims. The Maronite Catholics are the largest single Christian sect, estimated at 900,000. The last official figures are from Lebanon’s 1932 census.
On Sunday, Hezbollah leader Sheik 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 Hezbollah 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 Bush administration and called it “illegitimate” and “unconstitutional.”
Gemayel’s assassination was the first since Gibran Tueni, prominent anti-Syrian newspaper editor and lawmaker, was killed in a car bomb in December 2005. Journalist and activist Samir Kassir and former Communist Party leader George Hawi were killed in separate car bombings in June 2005.