Moves to bring Syria back into the diplomatic fold were dealt a blow on Tuesday by the killing in Beirut of a prominent anti-Syrian Christian government minister.

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year-old minister of industry who hails from one of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian families, plunged a tense and divided country into deeper turmoil. Mr Gemayel was shot in his car in a Beirut suburb.

The killing drew strong condemnation from George W. Bush. Though the US president did not say who he blamed for the killing, Mr Bush said the US supported Lebanese government efforts to “defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence”.

The UN Security Council “unequivocally” condemned the assassination, describing Mr Gemayel as a “symbol of the political independence of Lebanon”.

Mr Gemayel’s assassination was part of a cycle of killings that Lebanon’s parliamentary majority, which controls the government, has blamed on Syrian agents. The assassins first struck in February 2005, killing Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister and a fierce opponent of Syria.

Supporters of Mr Gemayel gathered on Tuesday night at the hospital in the Christian area of Beirut where his body was kept. His funeral was due to be held in Beirut on Thursday morning. Smaller groups burnt tyres at the roads into Christian districts, near what was the front line in Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

Saad Hariri, head of the parliamentary majority and son of the murdered former leader, immediately blamed Damascus – a charge that Syria denied.

Damascus condemned the killing as a “heinous terrorist act”. Its embassy in Washington said the murder would undermine international efforts to promote engagement with Syria.

The Gemayel murder came just hours after Syria re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq. A senior US state department official suggested that Mr Gemayel had paid the price for trying to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence. The US stopped short of directly accusing Damascus.

The murder threatens to destabilise a government struggling for unity following the month-long summer conflict between Israel and the Hizbollah militant group. The Shia organisation, backed by Syria and Iran, has been seeking to capitalise on its declared victory against Israel by demanding a greater say in government. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah leader, condemned the Gemayel killing, saying the perpetrators “want to push Lebanon into chaos and a civil war”.

Beirut has been bracing for street demonstrations called by Hizbollah with the announced aim of bringing down the government or forcing new elections.

Lebanon’s anti-Syrian coalition has warned that ministers could be assassinated as a way of bringing down the cabinet. The government has already been undermined by the resignation of six ministers who belonged to Hizbollah and allied parties.

Western governments have been alarmed by the prospect of the collapse of the Lebanese government at a time when thousands of UN peacekeepers are deployed in the country following the ceasefire that ended the war between Hizbollah and Israel.

Anti-Syrian leaders in Beirut also accused political rivals of seeking to derail plans for a special international tribunal to bring Hariri’s killers to justice. Plans for the tribunal were approved by the cabinet last week and are being finalised by the UN.

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