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Funeral turns into anti-Syria platform

November 24, 2006

BEIRUT, Nov 23: Central Beirut was a sea of people on Thursday as Lebanese turned out in strength for the funeral of anti-Syrian minister Pierre Gemayel, whose murder threatens to plunge the country deeper into political turmoil.

The crowd, which local media estimated at hundreds of thousands, heard fiery speeches from leaders of the beleaguered pro-Western governing coalition castigating Syria and its local allies for the violence dogging the country.

Mr Gemayel was the sixth outspoken critic of Damascus to be killed in the past two years, and speaker after speaker vowed that they would not rest until the truth had been established and justice was done.

“We will not tire until we bring the killers to court,” the murdered minister's father, Amin Gemayel, told the crowd from behind a bullet-proof screen.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said Pierre Gemayel joined “the previous martyrs ... who had refused ... the regime of tutelage, killings and assassinations.”

Sunni leader Saad Hariri, who lost his five-time prime minister father Rafiq to an assassin's bomb in February 2005, told the crowd that they had shown the world that those opposed to Syria's machinations, and not Damascus's allies, were in the majority in Lebanon.

“You are here for a new revolution to show the entire world that the sons of Rafiq Hariri and the brothers of Pierre Gemayel are the majority in Lebanon,” he said.

The vast crowd turned the central Martyrs' Square into a rowdy sea of flags, contrasting with the calm of a funeral service attended by dignitaries, including French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, in the nearby Maronite Cathedral of St George.

The pallbearers struggled to carry the coffins into the church through the mass of people outside.

Gemayel's bodyguard, Samir Shartuni, who was killed alongside him in Tuesday's ambush on the outskirts of Beirut, was also being laid to rest.

Pope Benedict XVI condemned the `unspeakable’ assassination in a message read at the funeral.

Gemayel's coffin was then taken to his native Bikfaya in the mountains east of Beirut and buried in the family vault in the village cemetery.

Mourners trampled portraits of the Syrian and Lebanese presidents, Bashar al-Assad and Emile Lahoud, and chanted for Lahoud's ouster.

But the appeals by Mr Gemayel's father for the funeral to pass off peacefully appeared largely to have been heeded.

Martyrs' Square was where

an estimated one million people gathered in March last year after Rafiq Hariri's assassination sparked a wave of popular anger that prompted Syria to end a three-decade troop presence the following month.—AFP