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Lebanese Pay Tribute to Slain Anti-Syria Writer

THE WORLD

Protesters renew demands for Lebanon's pro-Damascus president to quit. He condemns the killing and says his conscience is clear.

June 04, 2005|Megan K. Stack and Rania Abouzeid | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Fellow journalists and anti-Syria politicians stood in silence and held pens aloft at a vigil Friday for Lebanese newspaper columnist Samir Kassir, who was killed by a car bomb a day earlier.

Demands continued for the resignation of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria, as the silent tribute was held in Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut.

Kassir, an outspoken critic of Syria's longtime domination of Lebanon, died when a remote-controlled bomb exploded in his car near the heart of downtown. It was the first such attack against a prominent anti-Syria figure since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a bomb attack in February.

The brazen daylight explosion jolted the country, coming as a reminder of Lebanon's vulnerabilities despite the heady months in which this troubled Mediterranean nation has seemed on the brink of reinvention.

Street protests and international pressure, galvanized by Hariri's assassination, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from the country in April. Free from overt Syrian interference, Lebanese began voting last week in staggered legislative elections. The heavily anticipated balloting has been touted as the closest thing to a free, fair vote this nation has experienced after decades of civil war and de facto occupation.

But there are lingering doubts in Lebanon over whether Syrian intelligence agents or their Lebanese proxies will try to influence the vote or undermine the creation of a new government.

"The forces that were trying to destabilize Lebanon continue to be powerful," said Adib Farha, an opposition-linked columnist and analyst. "The Lebanese were drunk with elation after [massive anti-Syria street demonstrations]. Some of our leaders over-relaxed and thought that the battle was over and started bickering over electoral lists."

Kassir's death has invigorated calls for the resignation of Lahoud, a longtime ally of Syria. Some anti-Syria politicians, most notably Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, have been seeking the president's ouster since Hariri's slaying, which was widely blamed on Syria and its Lebanese allies. Damascus has denied involvement.

Lahoud has steadfastly remained in his job as the old order crumbled around him: The government fell under popular pressure, Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents packed up and left the country and public sentiment shifted radically against Syrian allies.

On Thursday, Lahoud condemned Kassir's death, and told reporters, "My conscience is clear." That remark offends opposition leaders pushing for his ouster.

"His conscience is always clear. All of this blood and his conscience is still clear?" said Elias Atallah, head of the Democratic Left movement, of which Kassir was a founding member. "He doesn't know the magnitude of the pain of the Lebanese."

Anti-Syria activists gathered in the headquarters of the Democratic Left on Friday to plan their response to Kassir's death. They called for a march to the presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda on Monday to lay a wreath representing guilt for Kassir's death.

The wreath would "place the blame at the head of the joint Lebanese-Syrian security regime," Atallah said.

Mourners gathered on a plaza built over a former no-man's-land of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, near a statue laced with bullet holes. Kassir's killing has also provoked outrage within the Bush administration. The United States on Friday called on the U.N. Security Council to add an investigation of the journalist's slaying to its investigation into the bombing that killed Hariri. The German prosecutor who will head the Hariri inquiry arrived in Beirut in late May.

"We would like to see the United Nations Security Council expand its mandate for a United Nations-led investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri to include an investigation into the assassination of Mr. Kassir," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said near Crawford, Texas, where President Bush was spending a long weekend.

"This heinous act was clearly an attempt to intimidate the Lebanese people and undermine their efforts to build a free and democratic future," McClellan said.

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