Lebanon Pols Fear for Their Lives After Anti-Syrian Leader's Assassination

Lebanon's political crisis worsened Friday, with government ministers fearing for their lives after an assassination of one of their own, businesses on strike and all sides ignoring calls for dialogue.

Several hundred supporters of pro-Syria Hezbollah burned tires and blocked the road from Beirut to the airport before the Islamic militant group's leader ordered them home, but the U.S.-backed government pressed ahead with an issue that was likely to further anger Hezbollah. The Cabinet was to meet Saturday to give its final approval to a U.N.-created international court to try four pro-Syrian generals suspected in the February 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Tuesday's assassination of Interior Minister Pierre Gemayelan anti-Syrian Christian leader has reignited anger at Damascus, which dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades but was forced to withdraw its troops last year over accusations it was behind Hariri's killing.

Damascus has denied any role in the slayings of Hariri, Gemayel or four other anti-Syrian politicians over the past two years.

The standoff pits Syria's opponents — mostly Christians and Sunni Muslims — against its allies — mostly Shiite Muslims, led by Hezbollah. Anti-Syrians dominate the government and parliament, but the powerful guerrilla group is threatening to bring down the government with mass protests unless it and its allies get more power.

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An estimated 800,000 government supporters — a fifth of the population — turned out for Gemayel's funeral on Thursday, turning it into a political rally against Syria as Lebanon's ethnic groups faced their sharpest divisions since the 1975-90 civil war.

"Even at the height of the civil war, Lebanon has never witnessed this level of polarization among its sects, this kind of political mobilization and the crisis at such a dead end," wrote Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the daily As-Safir.

Fearing a meltdown, business leaders called a two-day strike starting Friday to urge the rival leaders to "take national decisions ... engage in dialogue and stop making threats of street protests."

Factories, banks and financial institutions closed Friday. Though many small shops remained open, many schools shut down and traffic was thinner than normal on Beirut's usually bustling streets.

Underlining the atmosphere of fear following Gemayel's assassination, some Cabinet ministers are sheltering in the government headquarters in downtown Beirut, although Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat, speaking on Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television, would not say how many ministers.

Efforts to break the deadlock — and even the outpouring of grief over the slaying of the young Christian politician — have failed to soften the entrenched positions.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have mediated in recent days, apparently to no avail.

Hezbollah ignored a call by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Thursday night for it to resume dialogue and for six pro-Hezbollah members who quit his Cabinet to return to their posts. The six quit in protest just before the Cabinet gave its initial approval of the international tribunal, which is opposed by Hezbollah.

Pro-government groups have warned that more government ministers may be targeted for assassination to deny the Cabinet the legal two-thirds quorum of 16 needed to approve the court. The Cabinet now has 17 members following the Shiites' withdrawal and Gemayel's death.

Nabil Bou Monsef, a political analyst speaking on LBC TV Friday, said the latest events served as "a great red alert" to the country. "Tensions are flashing red."

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