Lebanon pays last farewell to slain MP

BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanon buried Wednesday slain anti-Syrian MP and press magnate Gibran Tueni, amid angry calls for a regime change in Damascus and efforts by the Arab League to defuse tension between the two neighbours.
The international community also stepped up pressure on Damascus to comply unconditionally with a UN probe into the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri as France drafted a resolution to extend the investigation.

Hundreds of army commandos and police forces deployed in Beirut as schools, banks and shops remained shut in response to calls by the ruling anti-Syrian majority in parliament to observe a strike nationwide.

Tueni, 48, was killed in a massive car bomb blast Monday, a day after his return from France where he had spent some time for fear of an attempt on his life amid a spate of attacks on critics of Syria.

Lebanese mourners waving flags swarmed the streets of downtown Beirut, venting their rage at Syria and Damascus-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud as deputies called for the demise of the Syrian regime.

“Lahoud, shame on you. Resign,” they chanted. “Our president is under the Syrian boot,” and “Syria Out.”

But at the emotionally charged funeral, Tueni’s father, veteran diplomat Ghassan Tueni, 79, urged the Lebanese to rally around his son’s quest for Lebanese sovereignty and unity among Christians and Muslims.

“Bury with Gibran any sentiment of revenge and your rancour,” said a stoic Ghassan, one of the few mourners who remained dry-eyed throughout the moving ceremony at the 19th century St. George’s Cathedral in downtown Beirut.

The packed white-stone church rang with Greek Orthodox chants and echoed with the sobs of his widow Siham, his daughters Nayla and Michelle, family members, colleagues, politicians and supporters.

The sorrow reached its peak when Tueni, his driver and his bodyguard, who were killed with him, were buried at the Mar Mitr cemetery. His daughter Nayla collapsed amid the sea of mourners and had to be assisted by the civil defence.

Ferocious hostility for Syria, which many Lebanese blame for a series of political assassinations over the years, was visible on banners held high over the heads of mourners inside and outside the cemetery.

“The rooster of An-Nahar is stronger that the Baathist dogs,” read one banner.

The emblem of Tueni’s mass-circulation An-Nahar daily is a sky-blue rooster while Syria is ruled by the Baath Party.

In these charged conditions, Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa arrived in Beirut on a fence-mending mission saying he “cannot watch and let the situation deteriorate between Lebanon and Syria and reach an explosive level.”

“I am on an urgent diplomatic mission to defuse the dangerous situation” between Beirut and Damascus, Musa told reporters, after talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. He travels Thursday to Damascus.

In parliament, several Lebanese lawmakers lambasted Syria and demanded a government change in Damascus after observing a minute of silence in homage to Tueni, whose seat was draped in a Lebanese flag.

“The dictatorial regime must be stopped,” said Tueni’s uncle and minister of communications, Marwan Hamade, who was wounded in a bomb attack in October 2004.

“This regime will assassinate everyone if we don’t stop it,” said Solange Gemayel, who charged that her husband, president- elect Bashir Gemayel, was murdered in 1982 by the Syrians.

Druze leader and MP Walid Jumblatt told CNN television on Tuesday “this regime should change and should be tried” and said he was fearing for his own life.

At UN headquarters in New York, Lebanon’s former colonial power France on Tuesday submitted a draft resolution extending for six months a UN probe into the murder in February of Hariri and broadening it to cover other assassinations.

The draft acknowledged Lebanon’s request for an international court to be set up in the Hariri case and for an international probe into murders and attacks of anti-Syrian critics.

The government voted the request Monday, prompting Shiite Cabinet ministers of the pro-Syrian Amal-Hizbollah movements to walk out in protest in a move threatening the fragile balance of the five-month-old coalition government.

Syria, also under fire from the United States and UN investigator Detlev Mehlis over its alleged lack of cooperation in the Hariri probe, has denied any involvement in the attacks.

“Syrian cooperation has been grudging at best. We are looking for ways to make sure that the international pressure on Syria is unrelenting,” Washington’s ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, told the Security Council on Tuesday.

Mehlis said the Hariri probe might take “another year or two” because of what he termed the slow pace of Syrian cooperation and has cited fresh evidence suggesting that Syrian and Lebanese officers were involved in a report released Monday.

But Syria’s UN envoy Fayssal Mekdad insisted his government “has cooperated fully” and would continue to assist in the investigation, reiterating it was not in Syrian interest to stir problems in Lebanon.

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