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Opposition in Lebanon declares win

Times Staff Writer

In a probable blow to the Western-backed government, a key opposition leader Sunday declared victory in voting for a seat in parliament that was widely regarded as a proxy fight between the government and the pro-Syrian opposition.

Under guard by soldiers, tens of thousands of voters cast ballots in mountain villages northeast of the capital, where two civil war veterans and former allies were pitted against each other in a heated struggle for the Christian vote. After the opposition leader declared victory, the faction aligned with the government immediately claimed fraud but urged followers to remain calm.

Amin Gemayel, an ally of the government, was competing in the election for the seat of his dead son against a relatively unknown candidate, Kamil Khoury, who was backed by Michel Aoun, an ally of the Shiite-dominated opposition.

Pierre Gemayel, a young, popular Cabinet minister, was shot and killed late last year. His supporters believe Syria had a hand in his assassination, a charge denied by the government in Damascus.

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Late Sunday evening, Khoury’s camp announced it had won the seat. But official results were not expected until today.

“The big winner today is Syria,” said Michael Young, an opinion editor at the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper. “At the end of the day, Gemayel did not win, and Aoun did not lose.... It’s an ideal situation if Syria decides to impose its candidate” for president.

According to the Lebanese political system, the post of president is reserved for a Maronite Christian, and the vote was widely seen as a precursor to the upcoming election of a new president by parliament. President Emile Lahoud must step down by Nov. 23.

The race for the legislative seat highlighted deep divisions within the Christian community. Before the vote, Gemayel led an emotional campaign, telling voters that casting a ballot for him would be like casting a rose on his son’s grave. Volunteers in his stronghold of Bikfaya handed out white roses to voters to commemorate the slain politician.

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“Pierre Gemayel didn’t die of a heart attack or in a car accident,” said Eli Fares, the 36-year-old owner of La Vida, an electronics shop in Bikfaya. “Our heroes are all in the cemetery.”

Like Fares, many Christians on both sides of the divide thought the election was a chance to reassert themselves on the political scene.

“This is a fight for our existence here as Christians in this area,” Fares said.

Amin Gemayel, who heads the Falangist Party, served as Lebanon’s president in the ‘80s during the nation’s civil war, and appointed Aoun prime minister at the end of his term.

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Although Aoun helped put an end to almost 30 years of Syrian domination, the 72-year-old former army commander upset the political balance last year by allying himself with Hezbollah, the Shiite group that is opposed to the predominantly Sunni government and supported by Syria and Iran.

“We have to think of being Lebanese first, then Christians, et cetera, second,” said Joe Chebli, in explaining his vote for Khoury.

Despite the importance of the vote, there were few reports of violence. The Reuters news agency reported that two people were shot and wounded in clashes between supporters of rival political groups Sunday night.

In Bikfaya, supporters of Gemayel yelled out to an SUV full of Aoun supporters: “Go back to Daheer!” referring to the predominately Shiite suburbs of Beirut.

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Prime Minister Fouad Siniora characterized the election as a peaceful response to a string of political assassinations. “Democracy in Lebanon will defeat terrorism,” he said in a statement.

The Lebanese government has been paralyzed since a walkout by the opposition late last year.

In another election in Beirut, pro-government candidate Mohammed Amin Itani easily won a Sunni seat in parliament that came open when lawmaker Walid Eido was killed in a car bombing in June.

roug@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Raed Rafei in Bikfaya contributed to this report.


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