World leaders join to condemn attack

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The assassination of Pierre Gemayel was angrily condemned by the Bush administration yesterday. It also dealt a serious blow to efforts by Tony Blair to bring Syria into regional talks on the future of Iraq and the Middle East.

Mr Blair said: "It is to be utterly condemned. It is completely without any justification at all. We need to do everything we can to protect democracy in Lebanon and the premiership of Prime Minister [Fouad] Siniora."

But the Lebanese politician's murder only serves to underscore how the US has largely lost the ability to influence events in the region, its power and reputation sapped by the post-invasion debacle in Iraq.

His policy in shreds, Mr Blair said the murder "underlines once again the absolute and urgent need for a strategy for the whole of the Middle East".

Returning from the Pacific Rim summit in Vietnam, President Bush urged a full investigation to identify "those people and those forces" responsible for it. He stopped short of explicitly blaming Syria and its ally Iran, but accused them of seeking to bring down the democratically elected Lebanese government.

The United Nations also issued a statement in which it condemned "any attempt to destabilise Lebanon through political assassination or other terrorist acts".

John Bolton, Washington's envoy to the United Nations, pointed the finger directly at Damascus. "Eight of the last 10 pol- itical assassinations in Lebanon have been against anti-Syrian politicians," he said. "I think that people can draw their own conclusions."

European leaders interpreted the killing as an attempt to sabotage Lebanon's fragile democracy. "Once again, Lebanon has paid a heavy price for its determination to live in peace and independence," the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.

Spain's Foreign Ministry called the killing a "terrorist attack" and expressed support for the Lebanese government. The French President Jacques Chirac's office said he was "horrified". "France is certain that Lebanon's will for independence, freedom and democracy will emerge stronger from this," he said.

The attack comes a day after Syria and Iraq re-established diplomatic relations for the first time in 20 years, even as Washington accuses Damascus of allowing safe haven and free passage to insurgents fighting US troops in Iraq.

It also co-incides with the weekend summit in Tehran between the presidents of Iran and Iraq, which Syria was also due to attend, according to some reports, subsequently denied.