Lebanese Christian Cabinet minister killed in shooting in Beirut suburb

Tuesday, November 21st 2006, 9:55 am
By: News On 6

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Prominent anti-Syrian Christian politician Pierre Gemayel was assassinated in a suburb of Beirut on Tuesday, his Phalange Party radio station and Lebanon's official news agency reported.

The slaying will certainly heighten political tensions in Lebanon, where the leading Muslim Shiite party Hezbollah has threatened to topple the government if it does not get a bigger say in Cabinet decision-making.

Gemayel was shot in his car in Jdeideh, a Christian neighborhood, his constituency on the northern edge of Beirut, witnesses said. A car rammed his vehicle from behind and then a gunman stepped out and shot him at point-blank range, they said.

Gemayel was rushed to a nearby hospital, according to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. and the Voice of Lebanon, the Phalange Party mouthpiece. The party radio later said he was dead, as did the National News Agency.

In Washington, the State Department denounced the assassination as terrorism and an attempt to intimidate the governing coalition in Beirut.

Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, broke off a televised news conference after hearing Gemayel had been shot.

In an interview with CNN, Hariri praised him as ``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, the minister of industry and son of former President Amin Gemayel, was a supporter of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, which is locked in a power struggle with pro-Syrian factions led by Hezbollah.

Gemayel is the third prominent figure in Lebanon to be assassinated in the past two years. Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri's father, was killed in a car bombing in February 2005, and lawmaker and newspaper manager Gibran Tueni was killed in a car bombing in December 2005.

Gemayel was first elected to parliament in 2005 and was believed to be the youngest lawmaker in the body, where anti-Syrian groups dominate.

He hailed from a prominent family of politicians. His father, Amin, served as president between 1982 and 1988. 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.

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 Phalange Party dominated Christian politics for decades after Lebanon's independence from France in 1943, and Amin Gemayel is its current leader.

Pierre was a rising star in the party and expected to carry the mantle of the political family.

During the civil war, the Phalange had the largest Christian militia that fought Muslim forces and Palestinian guerrillas. The death of the senior Pierre Gemayel in 1983, the shrinking Christian community, and internal dissent have seriously weakened the party, which could not get its own leader elected to parliament in 2000.