BEIRUT—Hundreds of Lebanese mourners pressed on Wednesday to touch the coffin of minister Pierre Gemayel whose assassination, blamed by his allies on Syria, stoked fears of more killings and a surge in factional violence.
Anger and apprehension gripped the country as it prepared to bury Industry Minister Gemayel, a Christian gunned down as he drove through a Beirut suburb on Tuesday. He was the sixth anti-Syrian politician to be killed in nearly two years.
Several prominent anti-Syrian leaders said his death was the work of Damascus and they expected the murders of more politicians who had spearheaded protests that led to Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.
"It seems the Syrian regime will continue with the assassinations. I expect more assassinations but no matter what they do, we are here and we will be victorious," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said.
Gemayel's assassination turned Lebanon's Independence Day on Wednesday into a sombre occasion. All festivities, including a military parade, were cancelled.
The murder also heightened tensions between the anti-Syrian government and the pro-Damascus opposition led by Hezbollah, the powerful Shi'ite Muslim guerrilla group determined to topple what it regards as a pro-U.S. cabinet.
Syrian envoys denied the accusations of its involvement in the killing and joined the wave of international condemnation.
U.S. President George W. Bush called Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to offer his support after the assassination and pledged "to support Lebanese independence from the encroachments of Iran and Syria", a White House spokesman said.
Bush also called Gemayel's father, former president Amin Gemayel, to offer condolences.
Gemayel's funeral will take place on Thursday and the anti-Syrian coalition has urged a large turnout.
The 34-year-old's body was driven from a hospital near Beirut to his hometown of Bekfaya, northeast of the capital, where hundreds of weeping mourners walked behind the coffin, waving white-and-green flags of his Phalange Party.
As the procession made its way to Gemayel's family home, women on balconies threw rice and flower petals.
Hundreds scrambled to touch the coffin as it passed and some mourners were so hysterical they could barely walk.
"What can I say? They killed the hero of heroes. They are killing Lebanon's dream. The suspicion points towards Syria," said Rizkallah Gemayel, 45.
There was a heavy police and army presence in Bekfaya and in Christian neighbourhoods of Beirut.
Pope Benedict called the assassination a brutal attack and urged the country's people to beware "the dark forces who are trying to destroy the country". Lebanese Maronite Christian Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir urged restraint.
Many Lebanese also believe Syria was responsible for the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, the catalyst for Syria's military withdrawal.
The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday approved plans for a special international court to try suspects in Hariri's murder, but the tribunal has been a divisive issue in Lebanon.
The Security Council's action, in the form of a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will enable the plans to be submitted to the Lebanese government for its formal approval.
Gemayel, 34, was among cabinet members who voted last week to tentatively approve the U.N. plans submitted to Siniora's government.
Six mostly Hezbollah opposition ministers had resigned before the vote. Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud called the cabinet action illegitimate.
A U.N. investigation has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in Hariri's murder. Syria denies any links.
Hariri's son Saad and his allies quickly accused Damascus of killing Gemayel in an attempt to derail the U.N. tribunal. The death or resignation of two more ministers would now bring down Siniora's government.
The Gemayel assassination followed a devastating July-August conflict in south Lebanon between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, which accused the pro-U.S. government of backing its opponents in order to weaken the group as a political and military force.
Hezbollah and its allies have threatened to take to the streets to topple Siniora's government, saying it has lost its legitimacy since Shi'ite Muslims were no longer represented.
A political source close to Hezbollah said Tuesday's murder would force it to revise its plans and delay the protests.
"The murderer, who knew exactly the Lebanese situation, wanted to impede the popular action called by Hezbollah... and delay the inevitable downfall of the government, which lost its legitimacy," Baath, a Syrian government daily, said.