Arab leaders seek to avert violence in Lebanon


THE LEADERS of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon met in Beirut yesterday in an extraordinary summit with the aim of preventing sectarian violence over possible indictments by a UN tribunal of Hizbullah members for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

The Saudi and Syrian rulers expressed the hope that Lebanon’s current calm would continue, called on Lebanese to consider the national interest ahead of sectarian concerns, and expressed support for any measures that would enhance Lebanese solidarity and strengthen its unity government. They also stressed the need for boosting Arab ties and establishing mechanisms to promote common Arab action to deal with the unsettled situation in the region.

UN co-ordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams described the joint visit as “historic” and “beneficial” for the country’s stability. He said he hoped these leaders would help resolve problems Lebanon might face in coming months.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad flew together to Beirut on the monarch’s aircraft for meetings with Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, prime minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain premier, and leaders of Lebanon’s main political factions. The summit was hastily organised following reports that Hizbullah affiliates could be charged in the Hariri murder. Israeli media named one of the alleged culprits as Mustafa Badr al-Din, cousin and brother of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah’s security chief, who was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008. Israel has been accused in Arab quarters of being behind the killing.

After being notified by the tribunal of possible indictments, Mr Hariri informed Hizbullah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah but said Hizbullah itself would not be implicated. In a televised address, he announced that Hizbullah members could be indicted. He observed that the tribunal is not a neutral body but a political entity seeking to undermine Hizbullah in “Israel’s interests”. His comments were seen as an attempt to promote calm.

If Hizbullah members are charged, Lebanon’s fragile unity government – which includes Hizbullah ministers – would be put under severe strain. The army has already made it clear that it would not arrest Hizbullah members charged by the tribunal and there is serious concern that factional street-fighting could erupt.

In May 2008, Sunni militiamen loyal to Mr Hariri were defeated in skirmishes in Beirut by seasoned Hizbullah guerrillas and allied pro-Syrian Greek Orthodox fighters.

These clashes shocked most Lebanese, deeply scarred by 15 years of civil war, and compelled the factions to refrain from armed confrontation.

In addition to closed-door gatherings with key Lebanese figures, King Abdullah met leading personalities in the Sunni community while Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem held discussions with Hizbullah members of parliament who represent the Shia, Lebanon’s largest community.

The summit was also intended to display Arab unity following an Israeli military build-up along Lebanon’s southern border.

The Saudi monarch arrived in Damascus on Thursday following a meeting with Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak. The Beirut summit concluded as the Qatari emir, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, arrived for further discussions with Lebanese leaders with the objective of promoting a new confessional peace pact for Lebanon.