BEIRUT — Lebanon settled Thursday into an uneasy day of mourning for assassinated President Rene Mouawad amid hasty preparations to select a new national leader and escalating fears that Mouawad's murder could demolish the country's fragile peace.
Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon shut down for a "strike of denunciation" over the massive bomb blast that killed Mouawad and 23 others Wednesday. Parliament Speaker Hussein Husseini reportedly was attempting to schedule new presidential elections for as early as today.
Meanwhile, a telephone caller claiming to represent an underground Christian group threatened Thursday that lawmakers would face the same fate as Mouawad, who had been in office only 17 days, if they held new elections.
"The fate of all these men is at stake," the caller, identifying himself as a spokesman for the Christian Solidarity Front, told a Western news agency in Muslim West Beirut. "It will not be better than that of Rene Mouawad. We strongly warn Christian Parliament members against electing any new president for Lebanon."
Although the group did not directly claim responsibility for the assassination, an organization by the same name issued a death threat against Mouawad the day after he was elected Nov. 5.
Nearly all of the parties to Lebanon's 14-year-old civil war spent the day accusing each other of responsibility for the assassination, which raised grave new doubts about the prospects for a peace plan brokered by the Arab League, under which Mouawad had been elected.
In an ominous public address in Damascus, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Talas accused Lebanese Christian leader Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun of ordering the killing. Talas warned: "We shall cut off . . . the hand which has assassinated Lebanese legitimacy . . . and very soon."
Aoun had refused to accept Mouawad and the fledgling national reconciliation plan because of its failure to immediately eject the 40,000 Syrian troops that now control much of Lebanon. On Thursday, he demanded that an international commission be appointed by the United Nations to investigate the killing and called Mouawad "a national martyr because he was murdered in the shadow of the Syrian occupation."
Christian troops skirmished briefly with Syrian-backed Druze militiamen in the hills above Beirut shortly after dusk. Also, Israeli warplanes launched an attack on Palestinian guerrilla bases near Israel's security zone in south Lebanon, reportedly killing one guerrilla and wounding four others.
But, despite the increasing turmoil, a spokesman said the Arab League has no immediate plans to step in to bolster the peace plan agreed upon with Lebanese legislators in Taif, Saudi Arabia, last month.
"We're waiting on the Lebanese," said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified. "Consultations are taking place now, and we are waiting to see what will happen."
In a separate statement released in Algiers, the three-member committee of the league that oversaw the peace talks emphasized it is prepared "to bring all assistance required to help Lebanon find a way out of its unhappiness."
Nearly 40 members of Parliament on Thursday traveled to Baalbek, about 50 miles east of Beirut, to begin their deliberations on a new president. They were tentatively planning to convene today at Kleiat, a military airport in Syrian-controlled territory, to elect a successor.
Possible candidates include Suleiman Franjieh, a powerful pro-Syrian Maronite chieftain who was Lebanon's head of state during the eruption of the civil war in 1975, and three other Maronite Christians: Butros Harb, Fuad Naffaa and Pierre Helou.
Franjieh was a candidate for the presidency in 1988, but a boycott of the parliamentary session by anti-Syrian Christian deputies forced outgoing President Amin Gemayel to appoint Aoun as chief of an interim government. Lebanon had no permanent head of state until Mouawad's selection, and Mouawad had not yet completed the task of building his reconciliation government.
In Damascus, Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri urged the rapid election of a new leader. "Unless we elect a new president within 24 hours, or at the very most a very few days, we shall enter a period of hell," Jumblatt said at a news conference.
The government of Iran, in a statement carried on Tehran Radio, called the assassination a "new conspiracy" to bolster Aoun. Rival Iraq, which supplied arms to Aoun's Christian regime during the latest bloody months of fighting, in its state-run newspapers accused Syria and Iran of responsibility for the killing.
While some Beirut residents began fleeing the city again with fears of another round of fighting, a weeklong period of mourning began Thursday in Syrian-controlled areas of the country, with flags flying at half-mast and schools, banks and most shops closed.
The two leading Arabic dailies, Al Nahar and As Safir, ran their normally brightly colored logos in gray and black. Lebanese flags and banners that festooned the government house, where Mouawad a day earlier had received independence day well-wishers, were hastily torn down. Others, stuck to electric poles, trees and buildings, remained as souvenirs of what should have been Lebanon's first independence day with Mouawad as head of state.
Lebanese journalists, originally scheduled to observe a press holiday following the independence celebration, went back to work to put out Thursday's editions. All newspapers were filled with photographs of the tragic day.
"Another corpse being put into an ambulance," one caption read, and: "Last picture taken of the shahiid (martyr) Mouawad."
Raschka reported from Beirut and Murphy, a Times staff writer, reported from Cairo.