|Thousands attend funeral for slain March 14 MP
|Gemayel warns Christian legislators to attend election session or 'assassinate Ghanem a second time'
Thousands of saddened Lebanese bade farewell to slain pro-government lawmaker Antoine Ghanem and his two bodyguards Friday in a loud funeral procession that doubled as an expression of defiance ahead of a controversial presidential election.
The coffins of Ghanem, Nuhad Gharib, and Tony Daou - draped in the national flag and that of the right-wing Christian Phalange Party - were carried through the streets of Beirut to Sacred Heart Church in Badaro by weeping family members, friends, colleagues and flag-waving supporters of the pro-government March 14 Forces.
Women ululated as members of the party's youth section, in khaki pants and beige T-shirts, marched to the music of a brass band and onlookers waved party flags or threw flowers at the caskets from balconies.
"Your martyrdom, Antoine, is cherished. No one should boycott the election of the new president, or he should bear the consequences in front of the people, the nation, and history," former President Amin Gemayel, leader of the Phalange, said in his eulogy.
In a rare public appearance, parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri, Democratic Gathering leader MP Walid Jumblatt and Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea attended the funeral Mass despite the pronounced security risk.
Apart from the usual cordon of policemen guarding the church, specially trained dogs were in position at the main entrance to sniff mourners for explosives and any other suspicious substances.
Gemayel warned that failure to elect a president could lead to a disastrous power vacuum and plunge the country into further division, and therefore urged all Christian MPs, who make up half of Parliament, to attend next week's session to elect a new president.
"What I fear the most is that the vacuum in Lebanon will lead to division. Is that what the boycotters want? Especially the Christians?" Gemayel asked, adding that boycotting the election session "is like assassinating Ghanem a second time."
Gemayel also said Ghanem's death was "a message to the Arab League, the UN and the Security Council to protect the presidential elections in order to salvage the Lebanese Republic."
Ghanem, 64, and four others were killed by a car bombing in the predominantly Christian Beirut suburb of Sin al-Fil on Wednesday. He was the eighth prominent figure and the fourth anti-Syrian MP to be killed since early 2005 after the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
The legislator "devoted his life to serving Lebanon," his daughter Mounia said in tribute to her father.
"Who was Antoine Ghanem? He was a cedar cut out from Lebanon's cedar forest," she said.
Salim Sayigh, one of Ghanem's friends and colleagues and a political adviser to Gemayel, told The Daily Star that Ghanem had been a "great orator."
"We sat together at the Saint Cloud meeting as representatives for the Phalange Party and he was one of the best speakers and negotiators there," said Sayigh, referring to talks among representatives of Lebanon's feuding political parties outside Paris in July. "He was a reliable politician and a dependable friend," Sayigh added.
Outside the church, many in the crowd chanted anti-Syrian slogans, and vented anger at its allies, namely Hizbullah.
"Syria and its friends are behind all these crimes," said Tharwat Abu Salim, a Jumblatt supporter who along with hundreds of others came from the Chouf in a bus.
"There is no room for the opposition in this country, so get out!" he added, echoing similar sentiments expressed by others attending the funeral.
When questioned about the presidency, most of the March 14 supporters said they would support "any president" chosen by their leaders.
"Enough martyrs, enough blood, we want a new president and a new start," said one woman wearing a cap with the Phalange's stylized triangular cedar logo.
Also on Friday, Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, head of the United Nations team investigating February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others, visited the scene of the Ghanem killing, accompanied by members of his team.
Brammertz returned to Lebanon on Friday in response to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's official request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a day earlier, asking that Ghanem's assassination be added to the ongoing UN probe.
The Daily Star