BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Lebanese choked downtown Beirut to pay tribute to assassinated Christian leader Pierre Gemayel on Thursday, turning his funeral into a display of mass defiance towards Syria and its Hezbollah allies.
Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders have accused Syria of killing Industry Minister Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite families. Damascus has condemned his murder on Tuesday.
The anti-Syrian camp says the aim of the Syrian-backed opposition is to weaken Lebanon's Western-supported government and scupper a U.N.-backed tribunal, set up to try suspects in last year's assassination of ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri.
"They will not suppress our demands for the truth, justice and the international court," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told the flag-waving crowd, speaking behind a bullet-proof screen.
He stressed this was no time for strife. "At this moment, and above pain and above wounds, we are for dialogue."
Crowds carrying Lebanese flags and those of Christian factions, including Gemayel's Phalange Party, filled the heart of Beirut near St George Maronite Cathedral where Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir conducted the rites.
The mood was one of anger at Syria and resolve in support of Lebanon's anti-Syrian majority coalition. Inside the cathedral, family members wept and prayed over Gemayel's coffin.
"Our suspicions are big that Syria is behind this (killing) to destroy national unity, to destroy us living together and to fuel sectarianism," Sunni mourner Ghada Hakim, 63, told Reuters.
Troops and police ringed the building which is next to a huge mosque built by Hariri, whose tomb abuts Martyrs' Square. Helicopters flew overhead.
Mourners turned out in force but not in the vast numbers of March 14 last year after Hariri's killing, when an outpouring of anti-Syrian anger led Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years.
Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea told mourners only the international court could stop more killings. "That is why they (Syria and its allies) want a confrontation over the international trial," he declared.
Gemayel, 34, was shot dead on Tuesday in the sixth killing of an anti-Syrian figure in less than two years in Lebanon, a cockpit for regional conflicts and rivalries for decades.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country has been a strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, was the most prominent foreign dignitary to attend the funeral.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whose Amal faction is allied to Hezbollah, was the most senior pro-Syrian figure there.
"Whatever they do to remove young men, there will always be more young men to raise the flag," said Marwan Haj, 25. "Syria doesn't want us to be free and make our own decisions."
The country was already embroiled in a political crisis over efforts by Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah to clip the wings of the ruling anti-Syrian majority coalition, which the Shi'ite Muslim group regards as Washington's puppet.
Hariri's son Saad told the opposition to put Lebanon's interests first. "Leave your illusions, return to the truth, sovereignty and national unity, return to Lebanon," he said.
The cabinet has been depleted by the resignation of six ministers from the Syrian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah. They quit after all-party talks on a new government collapsed.
The government, keen to ensure the international tribunal is established, would fall if it lost two more ministers.
HEZBOLLAH PLANS DERAILED
Hezbollah had pledged street protests aimed at toppling the government but Gemayel's killing has put those plans on hold.
"It can't stage a demonstration now. It would be widely read as a pro-Syrian demonstration as opposed to an anti-government demonstration," Hezbollah expert Amal Saad Ghorayeb said.
The U.N. Security Council approved on Wednesday a Lebanese government request to add the Gemayel killing to the string of previous attacks the U.N. inquiry is investigating.
The early reports by a U.N. inquiry into the Hariri killing implicated Syrian security officials and their Lebanese counterparts. Syria denies involvement.
Anti-Syrian leaders had called for a huge turnout for the funeral of the son of ex-President Amin Gemayel and nephew of Bashir Gemayel, killed in 1982 when he was president-elect.
Amin Gemayel, addressing the crowd after the funeral, called for change and reform in Lebanon, saying it must start with an early presidential poll to replace Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud, whose term was extended in 2004 under Syrian pressure.
"We will not rest until all the criminals are brought to justice," Gemayel added.
(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki, Tom Perry and Leila Bassam)
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