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Anti-Syria Rage Rises in Beirut

Times Staff Writer

Weeping, and cursing Syria, tens of thousands of Lebanese spilled into the streets of Beirut on Wednesday as a funeral march for publisher and politician Gibran Tueni turned into a livid political protest.

Tueni, 48, was assassinated Monday morning in a bombing as he was being driven to work. In his columns, the newspaper magnate and lawmaker served up scathing criticisms of Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs back in the days when many here tiptoed around the taboo of speaking out against Damascus. Tueni is the fourth major anti-Syria figure to be killed this year.

“I call on this occasion not for revenge or hatred but for us to bury with Gibran all our hatreds,” Ghassan Tueni, the slain man’s father and also a journalist, told reporters at the Greek Orthodox church where his son was buried. “To call on all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, to unite in the service of the great Lebanon.”

Tueni’s death provoked a fresh wave of revulsion and despair in Lebanon, along with a growing sense of helplessness against the killings and bombings. Although the February assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, remains unsolved, many Lebanese blame Syria. They also accuse it of orchestrating more than a dozen bombings, assassinations and near-misses after Hariri’s slaying.

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Syrian forces entered Lebanon during the country’s civil war that began in 1975 and remained in control after the fighting stopped in 1990. The Syrian power structure collapsed when local rage and international pressure stirred by Hariri’s death forced Damascus to withdraw its troops and at least some of its intelligence agents last spring.

But despite the disappearance of overt Syrian power, many Lebanese still complain that Damascus has kept a grip on the country through undercover agents and Lebanese allies.

“The equation is clear,” Lebanese lawmaker Akram Shehayeb said Wednesday during a special session of parliament called to honor Tueni. “He who gives orders is in Damascus. The executioner is here in Beirut.”

Tueni’s coffin was draped with the red, white and green flag of Lebanon and carried slowly through the streets of downtown Beirut to the church. Under the sorrowful pealing of church bells, the procession made its way through a park named for his grandfather, who founded the newspaper An Nahar in the 1930s.

The paper became one of Lebanon’s most respected publications, with Tueni running outspoken opinion pieces. His daughter is also a journalist at the paper, whose name means “The Day.”

Because of Tueni’s burial, wide swaths of Beirut were deserted Wednesday. War-pocked neighborhoods stood still except for a few groups of old men hunched over backgammon boards. Avenues were empty through block after block of shuttered shops and offices.

Among the chanting, marching crowds, grief turned to anger in anti-Syria slogans.

“Syria is still here, even more than before,” said Khalil Helou, 22, a student clad in the colors of the flag. “Their spies are burning us, but we’re brave enough to stand up to these terrorists.”

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At first glance, the march was reminiscent of the massive protests that helped drive Syrian troops out of Lebanon this year. But today’s Lebanon isn’t the same nation that struggled to set aside religious divisions to unite against Syrian influence. These days the enemy is murkier, the demands foggier and the country more obviously fractured.

Mourners on Wednesday gathered under the flags of the former civil war militias and wore buttons with pictures of former warlords. Under a baking sun, followers of Christian militia leader Samir Geagea formed triangles with their fingers to salute the militia turned political party. At the edge of that mini-rally, supporters of rival Christian leader Michel Aoun brushed past in their trademark orange, shouting slogans.

Meanwhile, in the predominantly Shiite Muslim suburbs of Beirut, the day was like any other. There was no sign of mourning, and shops bustled with business. Shiites have traditionally been backed by Damascus, and many regarded the anti-Syria movement as an attempt by Christians and Sunnis to disenfranchise Shiites.

After Tueni’s death, the Lebanese government asked the United Nations to set up a tribunal to try those responsible for the series of attacks here. But Shiite ministers were so angered by the request, which they described as a dangerous invitation for foreign meddling, that five Shiite members of the Cabinet suspended their participation in the government.

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Rhetoric also is hardening among anti-Syria politicians. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who had called for Lebanese independence from Syrian influence, this week went a step further, demanding the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“This time this regime should change,” Jumblatt told CNN. “This guy in Damascus [Assad] is sick. If he stays, we won’t have stability in the Middle East.”


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