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Middle east

Lebanese prime minister returns to country without government

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-01-14

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has returned from talks in the United States, France and Turkey to face a showdown between rival Lebanese factions after the collapse of his fragile national unity government.

AFP - Premier Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon on Friday as rival parties prepared for a showdown over the appointment of a new prime minister, two days after Hezbollah and its allies forced the collapse of his government.

Hariri returned to his crisis-hit country after week-long talks in the United States, France and Turkey on a standoff between his Western-backed camp and the powerful Hezbollah over a UN probe into 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father.

President Michel Sleiman is set to begin consultations Monday with Lebanon's 128 parliamentarians to nominate a new premier.

France, Lebanon's former colonial power, has proposed the creation of an international "contact group" to negotiate a settlement to the crisis, a European diplomat in Beirut told AFP.

"The contact group would include Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States, Qatar, Turkey and possibly other countries," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The group would meet outside of Lebanon given the current tensions in the country."

The French foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny the proposal.

In a move led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, 11 ministers withdrew from Hariri's unity cabinet on Wednesday, providing the minimum number of resignations needed to automatically dissolve the government.

The walkout was the latest development in a long-running dispute over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is reportedly set to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with the Hariri murder.

The resignations came after efforts by regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Syria to find a compromise on the tribunal failed.

But local politicians have begun to float the idea of reviving the Syrian-Saudi initiative.

"If both sides agree to remain on that track, then no one can compete with Hariri" for the premiership, an official close to Hezbollah told AFP.

"If they get off that track, then all options are open as far as other candidates for the premiership," he said on condition of anonymity.

In an interview published Friday in the pro-Hariri daily An-Nahar, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt echoed that view, saying there was "no escaping" the Syrian-Saudi proposal.

Officials have told AFP the pact proposed a trade-off: Hezbollah will not resort to violence if Hariri agrees to reject the STL accusations.

"Our decision is final and there is no turning back... Hariri can still head a government that will serve its term through to 2013 only if he vows to forego the tribunal," a Hezbollah source told the daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to the Shiite militant party.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who has made it clear he would not sit idle should any members of his party be indicted, is expected to address the political crisis in coming days.

Ahead of Monday's consultations, Hezbollah said it would nominate a premier with "a history of resistance," but stopped short of giving any names.

"We will meet on Sunday to make the decision we find appropriate," MP Abbas Hashem, a member of the Hezbollah-led parliamentary alliance, told AFP.

"We respect Saad Hariri's inability to face the crisis, seeing as he himself had said he was not that keen on holding on to premiership."

Jumblatt's parliamentary bloc will be the first group to meet with Sleiman. The Druze leader controls 11 key votes in parliament that could make or break the next government.

Jumblatt for years had been allied with Hariri, but he moved closer to Hezbollah in 2009.

Hariri's bloc has ruled out the nomination of anyone other than the outgoing premier.

"In light of his popularity, Saad Hariri is the sole candidate for premiership," said Ghattas Khoury, an adviser to Hariri.

"All this talk of nominating someone else is a ploy to intimidate Hariri by saying he has competition and pressuring him into meeting the conditions" of the rival camp, Khoury told AFP.

"Hariri is being demanded to give up the tribunal and reject its indictments even before they are issued. This did not happen and it will not happen."

Date created : 2011-01-14


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