BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Lebanese poured into central Beirut to pay tribute to assassinated Christian leader Pierre Gemayel on Thursday, turning his funeral into a show of defiance against Syria and its Hezbollah allies.
Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders have accused Syria of killing Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite families. Damascus has condemned his murder.
Crowds of mourners carrying Lebanese flags and those of Christian factions, including Gemayel's Phalange Party, packed Martyrs' Square in Beirut before the funeral at 1 p.m. (1100 GMT) in the St George Maronite Cathedral.
"Our suspicions are big that Syria is behind this to destroy national unity, to destroy us living together and to fuel sectarianism," Sunni mourner Ghada Hakim, 63, told Reuters.
Thousands of soldiers and police were deployed in the capital which was at a standstill. Shops, schools, banks and government offices were closed to let people join the mourning.
Among the flags were banners demanding that Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud resign. "Bashar agent, get out of Baabda (presidential palace)," one banner read, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"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."
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.
The country was already in the midst of 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.
Anti-Syrian leaders say Damascus had Gemayel killed to try to derail plans for an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Early reports of a U.N. inquiry into the Hariri killing implicated Syrian security officials and their Lebanese counterparts. Syria denies involvement.
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.
"Only the international tribunal protects us" and "Lebanon means life" read banners held by mourners in Beirut.
Hariri's son Saad, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Christian Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea had called for a huge turnout at the funeral of the son of former President Amin Gemayel and nephew of Bashir Gemayel, killed in 1982 after he was elected president.
Gemayel's cortege was driving from his mountain home town of Bekfaya to downtown Beirut, where mass protests after Hariri's killing helped end Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
Jumblatt said on Wednesday Gemayel's killing marked the resumption of political killings. "It seems the Syrian regime will continue with the assassinations," he said.
Anti-Syrian leaders say the assassination was aimed at weakening a government opposed to Damascus's influence in Lebanon and which took power after Syrian troops withdrew.
The government, keen to ensure the international tribunal is established, would fall if it lost two more ministers.
The cabinet has been weakened by the resignation of six ministers from the Syrian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah. They quit after the collapse of all-party talks on forming a government.
Hezbollah had pledged street protests aimed at toppling the government but Gemayel's killing has disrupted those plans.
"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.
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