Thursday, March 29, 2007

Abdullah criticizes Beirut protests, voices hopes for deal to end stalemate

RIYADH/BEIRUT: Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Wednesday denied that the Arab summit would resolve Lebanon’s political crisis, but said that efforts by Saudi Arabia to push the Lebanese toward a compromise would continue. President Emile Lahoud, who is heading one Lebanese delegation to the summit while Siniora heads another, said on Wednesday that the summit should push for "unity among the Lebanese."

Lahoud was seated in the chair for the official representative of Lebanon on Wednesday, while Siniora was placed in an area allocated for senior guests.

The crisis in Lebanon was mentioned in the opening statements made by the former host of the Arab summit, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and the current host King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, with both leaders calling for a solution to the impasse in Beirut.

"[Lebanon] remains paralyzed," King Abdullah told Arab leaders at the summit, "but I remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached."

"We reject the act of turning common streets into hotels," he added, referring to a four-month-old Hizbullah-led anti-government sit-in in Downtown Beirut.

Sources close to Lahoud’s delegation said mediators from Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have reached an agreement between both Lebanese delegations regarding an article in the summit’s final statement expressing support for Lebanon and the establishment of an international tribunal to try those behind the killing of former Premier Rafik Hariri and others.

Separate sources at the summit told The Daily Star that there were "minor" changes made to the Lebanese paper, known as "the paper of solidarity with the Lebanese government," at the request of Lahoud.

The changes concerned the wording of the document, the source explained, saying the phrase "government of Lebanon" was changed to "state of Lebanon," while the word "welcoming" was used instead of "adopting" with regard to Siniora’s seven-point plan, an agreement adopted by the Lebanese government at the end of the summer 2006 war.

Other changes concerned a passage referring to the formation of the tribunal, which will now be decided by "national consensus and democratic institutions and the government of Lebanon," rather than simply by a decision from the government.

"I believe the good efforts exerted by the Saudi kingdom … are continuing but there is no initiative in the true sense," Siniora said from Riyadh, according to a statement from his office.

Siniora was responding to earlier reports that a decision had been reached on the Lebanese crisis after a meeting between Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday, the first such face-to-face in several months.

"There is a desire to continue these efforts and to achieve progress in the ongoing dialogue in Lebanon between Speaker Nabih Berri and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri," Siniora added.

Talks between Berri and Siniora were put on hold for the past two weeks after a protest by MPs from the parliamentary majority called on Berri to convene the legislature for its spring session. The speaker has refused to do so, arguing extraordinary circumstances.

The statement said that Siniora held a meeting with Abdullah on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Lahoud said Wednesday that the Arab summit should encourage "unity among the Lebanese." He also praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to help Lebanon reach a solution.

Lahoud spoke to reporters after a meeting with Arab League, chief Amr Moussa, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Abdel-Aziz Khoja and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal just hours before the summit.

Separately, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged support for Siniora’s government, and said the premier "has displayed impressive leadership under difficult circumstances.

"I urge you to support his democratically elected government," Ban told the summit.

Ban said that the political stalemate in Lebanon "threatens to undermine one of the region’s most vibrant societies."

The UN chief, one of several world leaders invited to the opening ceremony of the two-day gathering, is set to arrive in Lebanon on Thursday night on the last leg of a regional tour that has taken Ban to Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. He will meet Siniora and Berri while in Beirut.

Moussa told officials at the summit that Lebanon remains a "hostage" to its leaders. "The crisis in Lebanon continues and the country remains hostage to the disagreements of its leaders over a solution," he said.

Prior to his speech, Moussa told reporters that " one united Lebanese document" was presented to the summit.

"It has been agreed upon by both sides," he said, referring to Lahoud and Siniora, who reportedly clashed over the document’s wording.