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Tension at Qatar talks over Hezbollah's disarmament

Latest update : 2008-05-19

Lebanon’s opposing factions stumbled on the critical issue of disarming Hezbollah during this weekend's crisis talks in Doha. (Story by J. Le Masurier)

Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition on Monday rejected a proposal at Arab-brokered talks with its pro-government rivals aimed at ending a political crisis which took the country to the brink of civil war.
The rebuff threatened to derail the crisis talks on their third day, and came after host Qatar proposed an immediate presidential vote and formation of a unity government while postponing discussion of a disputed electoral law.
In a statement issued after a meeting of its leaders, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition refused to postpone discussion of the electoral law and said it was committed to an Arab-brokered agreement reached in Beirut last week, which led to the Doha talks.
"The Lebanese opposition stresses its adherence to... (firstly) agreeing on the representation (of parties) in the formation of a national unity government, and (secondly) to agree on a new electoral law," the statement said.
"The agreement would be crowned by electing General Michel Sleiman as president as agreed."
The rival factions have agreed on the election of the army chief as president to succeed Damascus protege Emile Lahoud, who stood down at the end of his term of office in November without a successor in place.
But differences over the government's makeup and the electoral law have blocked his election, worsening a crisis that began in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
Two of the key mediators in the talks have made plain that they cannot continue to play an active role indefinitely.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is due at a Gulf summit in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, while Arab League chief Amr Mussa has said he too needs to fly out the same day.
The 18-month-old politicial deadlock erupted into bitter sectarian fighting earlier this month that saw 65 people killed, and Hezbollah and its Shiite allies briefly seize Sunni areas of west Beirut.
On Sunday, Qatar proposed the formation of a unity government of 30 ministers, with 13 from pro-government parties, 10 from the opposition and seven chosen by the newly elected president.
The opposition has insisted that it wants more than a third of cabinet posts.
The proposed changes to the electoral law could prove decisive in determining the outcome of parliamentary elections due next year.
The two sides differ over the size of constituencies for the elections amid opposing assessments of their political advantage.
Government delegates said the next step was up to the Qatari hosts after the opposition's rejection of their proposals.
Acting Foreign Minister Tareq Mitri accused the opposition of showing insufficient respect for the efforts of the Qatari mediators to find a compromise.
Qatar has also proposed including a clause in the final statement of the talks providing guarantees against any renewed resort to armed violence in internal Lebanese disputes.
Disagreements between the two sides over Hezbollah's large arsenal has proved an additional stumbling block in the talks with the government representatives insisting that it be on the agenda.
Qatar sought to defuse the rift by offering to come up with a compromise proposal.
The head of the Hezbollah delegation, Mohammed Raad, said on Sunday: "The issue of the resistance, its arms and capabilities is not up for discussion."
Youth and Sports Minister Ahmed Fatfat hit back by saying that "if the arms issue is not specifically addressed... then there will be nothing."
Druze MP Akram Shehaieb said the pro-government bloc wanted to address only the issue of the weapons used "against the Lebanese people in Beirut and the mountains" in the recent clashes.
"The weaponry of the resistance is a Lebanese issue which will be debated in a (subsequent) dialogue led by the president in Lebanon," he said.
Hezbollah was the only group that was not required to surrender its weaponry after the end the 1975-1990 civil war. It has always justified its exemption of the basis of its struggle with Israel, which erupted into a devastating war in summer 2006.

Date created : 2008-05-19