By Yara Bayoumy
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Lebanese paid tribute to assassinated Christian politician Pierre Gemayel on Thursday, turning his funeral in central Beirut into a display of defiance towards
Syria and its Hezbollah allies.
Raucous crowds carrying Lebanese flags and those of Christian factions, including Gemayel's Phalange Party, swarmed around Beirut's St George Cathedral, where top Marionite cleric Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir conducted the rites.
Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders, standing together behind bullet-proof glass, called for solidarity in the struggle against the influence of Syria and its allies in Lebanon.
"National unity is stronger than their weapons, their crimes and their terrorism," said Saad al-Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri who was assassinated in 2005.
The leaders had accused Syria of killing the industry minister, the 34-year-old scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite clans. Damascus condemned the assassination.
"We will not rest until all the criminals are brought to justice," Gemayel's 64-year-old father, Amin, told mourners.
Gemayel was shot dead on Tuesday in the sixth killing of an anti-Syrian figure in less than two years in Lebanon.
The government says its Syrian-backed opponents, led by Shi'ite party Hezbollah, want to weaken it and to scupper an international tribunal under U.N. auspices that is being set up to try suspects in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri.
"Our suspicions are big that Syria is behind this (killing) to destroy national unity, to destroy us living together and to fuel sectarianism," Sunni mourner Ghada Hakim, 63, told Reuters.
Anger at Syria and resolve to support Lebanon's anti-Syrian majority coalition swept through the crowd. Inside the cathedral, family members wept and prayed over Gemayel's coffin.
"Whatever they do to remove young men, there will always be more young men to raise the flag," said Marwan Haj, 25. "Syria doesn't want us to be free and make our own decisions."
Mourners turned out in force but not in the vast numbers of March 14 last year after Hariri's killing, when an outpouring of anti-Syrian anger coupled with international pressure forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years.
"They will not suppress our demands for the truth, justice and the international court," said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Troops and police ringed the cathedral which is next to a huge mosque built by Hariri. His tomb abuts Martyrs' Square.
After the funeral, Gemayel's coffin was driven back to his home town of Bekfaya in the mountains above Beirut, where it was laid to rest in the family vault.
Even before Gemayel's killing, Lebanon was in crisis over efforts by Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, to clip the wings of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government, despised by the Shi'ite Muslim group as Washington's puppet.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country has been a strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, was the most prominent foreign dignitary to attend the funeral along with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whose Amal faction is allied to Hezbollah, was the most senior pro-Syrian figure there.
Maronite Christian leader Michel Aoun, who is aligned with Hezbollah, stayed away but said he shared the mourners' grief. Hezbollah leaders, who have said Gemayel's assassins sought to stir civil strife in Lebanon, were also absent.
The cabinet has been depleted by the resignation of six ministers from Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian factions. They quit after all-party talks on a new government collapsed.
The government, keen to ensure the international tribunal is established, would fall if it lost two more ministers.
Hezbollah had pledged street protests aimed at toppling the government but Gemayel's killing has put those plans on hold.
The U.N. Security Council approved on Wednesday a Lebanese government request to add Gemayel's killing to the string of previous attacks being investigated by a
United Nations inquiry into Hariri's assassination.
U.N. investigators met Lebanese prosecutors and visited the site of Gemayel's assassination where they began initial investigations, Lebanon's government news agency reported.
Early reports by the U.N. inquiry into Hariri's death implicated Syrian security officials and their Lebanese counterparts. Syria denies involvement.
Anti-Syrian leaders had called for a huge turnout for the funeral of Gemayel, the son of former President Amin Gemayel and the nephew of Bashir Gemayel, killed in 1982 when he was president-elect.
Amin Gemayel called for change and reform in Lebanon, saying it must start with an early presidential poll to replace Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud, whose term was extended in 2004 under Syrian pressure.
(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki, Tom Perry and Leila Bassam)