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Hundreds of Thousands Turn Out for Lebanese Minister's Funeral

Hundreds of thousands of mourners attended the funeral of slain Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, who was the sixth anti-Syrian politician in Lebanon to be assassinated in the last two years. The funeral became a raucous political demonstration in support of the government, which has been under pressure from the pro-Syrian opposition. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough was at the funeral in central Beirut, and has this report.

The patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Christian church presided over a solemn and traditional funeral service in St. George's Cathedral, where Pierre Gemayel's coffin was draped in the flag of his Phalange party.

But with hundreds of thousands of people massing outside in Martyr's Square, the day quickly transformed into a defiant, angry political rally in support of Lebanon's anti-Syrian ruling coalition.

The crowd heaped scorn on Syria's president and his Lebanese allies, especially Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

"Lahoud is a killer," he screamed. "We want him to get out from Baabda [the presidential palace]!"

A woman named Julia, with a Phalange flag draped over her shoulders, said what Lebanon needs before anything else is justice - and a new president.

"But the president needs to step down," said Julia. "I think he needs to be arrested. This is what should happen. He needs to be arrested."

Many of the mourners blame Syria and its allies, not just for Gemayel's assassination on Tuesday, but also for five earlier killings of anti-Syrian politicians over the last two years. Syria has denied it had any role in those attacks.

A man named Khalil stood with a small group of friends, all wearing hats from the Christian group called the Lebanese Forces.

He says, "I wish the Lebanese people could come together for weddings and happy occasions, but unfortunately we come together on days like this, to bury people."

Martyr's Square was a sea of red, white and green Lebanese flags, waving alongside banners from several different Christian factions and the main Druze party. Muslims and Christians stood side-by-side.

A woman named Amal Jaffan, wearing a black-and-white Muslim headscarf, held photos of both Pierre Gemayel and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, two slain politicians, one Christian, the other Muslim.

"The two died for the same reason. That's why," said Amal Jaffan.

She said the assassins are trying to destroy Lebanon's sovereignty and kill off its independent leaders. And she recalled that, not too long ago, Lebanon's Christians and Muslims were mortal enemies.

"But now, we are all together, Christian, Muslim, everyone, because we have to support our country," she said.

Political representatives of pro-Syrian factions were noticeably absent. The parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berry of the Shi'ite Amal party, attended the funeral, but leaders of Hezbollah, which has broad Shi'ite support, stayed away, as did their Christian ally, General Michel Aoun.

Those pro-Syrian factions have been demanding the government's resignation, and their six Cabinet ministers have walked out. The opposition's promised street protests were delayed after Gemayel was killed. But sectarian tensions are higher now than they have been since the end of Lebanon's vicious 14-year civil war.

In a series of political speeches after the funeral service, the leaders of the anti-Syrian March 14 movement rallied supporters, and vowed that their government will not only survive, but thrive. The politicians, including Rafik Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Pierre Gemayel's father, former President Amin Gemayel, renewed their calls for an international court to investigate Lebanon's political assassinations.

After the funeral, in the mountains east of Beirut, Pierre Gemayel's body was laid to rest in his home village of Bikfaya.