Lebanon was engulfed in fear and gloom yesterday as mourners came to this mountain town to pay last respects to a Christian politician, whose assassination threatened to push the country's political crisis over the brink.
The government cancelled Independence Day celebrations and people huddled around televisions at home to watch the live broadcast of dignatories, members of the Phalange Party and hundreds of villagers walking past the coffin of Pierre Gemayel and paying condolences to his father, former president Amin Gemayel, in the family home.
Pierre Gemayel, 34, minister of industry, was killed on Tuesday when two cars blocked his vehicle at an intersection in the suburbs of Beirut and an assassin shot him numerous times through a side window.
His killing -- the fifth murder of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon in two years -- immediately drew condemnation from all quarters.
The US denounced the assassination as an act of terrorism. President George W. Bush accused Syria and Iran of trying to undermine Lebanon's government, but he stopped short of blaming them for the killing.
Syria too condemned the assassination and denied any role in it.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said Gemayel's murder was part of a "conspiracy" that began with the assassination last February of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
"I tell the Lebanese that today is the time for them to unite or else all of Lebanon will lose," Lahoud said in a TV address late on Tuesday, when he announced the cancellation of Independence Day ceremonies.
"We will do the impossible to uncover the criminals because they are against all the Lebanese," Lahoud said.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora also went on TV to appeal for unity and warn that Lebanon was facing "sedition."
In his address, Saniora linked Gemayel's slaying to the issue that sparked the crisis with Hezbollah: a plan for an international court to try suspects in the Hariri assassination. He said Lebanese should rally behind the government's backing for such a court.
Saniora's government is dominated by opponents of Syria. Many see the demands as a bid by Damascus to restore its influence in its smaller neighbor -- and by Hezbollah to boost its power, riding on increased popularity among Lebanon's Shiite Muslim population following this summer's war with Israel.