Lebanon president seeks all-party talks

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman has launched a drive for all-party talks to assess his chances of forming a new government after calls for the premier to quit over a deadly bombing, his office said

By (AFP)

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Published: Wed 24 Oct 2012, 7:10 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:13 PM

Lebanon has been in crisis since Friday, when a car bomb blamed on Syria killed police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan in Beirut.

A high-ranking official in the president’s office told AFP Sleiman “has begun consultations with the leading figures of the country, in the context of the national dialogue, to discuss the possibility of forming a new government.”

The talks come amid a clamour of calls led by ex-premier and opposition chief Saad Hariri for Prime Minister Najib Mikati step down over the assassination of Hassan, who had been prominent in pursuing political killings in Lebanon allegedly linked to Syria.

Mikati said on Saturday he had accepted Sleiman’s request to stay on for the time being in the “national interest.”

The official in Sleiman’s office said that if the envisaged dialogue “were to result in agreement on the form of a new government that can pull Lebanon out of its impasse, then Mr Mikati could present his resignation and the process of forming the government could begin.”

However, Hariri’s March 14 coalition insists that Mikati resign before it will join any national dialogue.

An MP from Christian politician Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Current, part of the governing coalition dominated by Hezbollah, an ally of Syria, criticised what he said was opposition obstructionism.

“We are open in principle to any discussion about any subject but against the paralysis of (state) institutions,” Ibrahim Kanaan told AFP.

“What does it serve to boycott everything the government does,” he asked, referring to March 14’s refusal to participate in any forum where the government is present. “Nothing.”

The United States and the European Union, both anxious to ward off any further Syrian interference in Lebanon, have separately warned against creating a political vacuum.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday the “export of instability from Syria threatens the security of Lebanon now more than ever, and it’s really up to the Lebanese people to choose a government that is going to counter this threat.”

And EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, without pointing a finger, said in Beirut on Tuesday that “there are some who are trying to divert attention from the situation in the region by causing problems in Lebanon.”

The Lebanese official said “their message can be summed up as follows: ‘Come to an agreement on a new government and we will support you. We want to see institutions to continue working and oppose any institutional vacuum.”

US Ambassador Maura Connelly met with Sleiman on Wednesday to reiterate Washington’s support for efforts “to build an effective government and take the necessary next steps” in the wake of Hassan’s murder, the embassy said.

Hassan’s murder has sparked fears of new inter-confessional strife in Lebanon. Much of the Sunni Muslim community opposes the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and most Shias support him, while Christians are divided.

Since Friday’s bombing, at least 11 people have been killed in fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian camps in the northern city of Tripoli.

There was also a brief spate of violence in Beirut, but the capital has been calm since late Monday.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said he does not believe the government will fall or yield to demands that it resign.

“It could be that the discussions, either in public, or even behind the scenes, might lead to a government of national unity that would incorporate the actual cabinet plus others from the opposition,” he said. “I do not see any other outcome.”

“The West ... wants the government to stay in place, not out of any particular love for Mikati but because they do not want the situation to deteriorate, and I think that Mikati will remain as chief even if a new government is formed.”

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