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Saudi, Syrian leaders in Lebanon to defuse tension

Friday, July 30, 2010 06:22:51 PM, Agencies

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, receives King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, on his arrival at al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus on Thursday.

(Photo: AP)

Beirut: The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia are heading to Beirut on Friday to help defuse a simmering crisis over expected indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


Rumours about forthcoming indictments from the UN tribunal investigating al Hariri's death have seen tensions rise in Lebanon, prompting fears of a return to sectarian violence in the country.

Reports are circulating in Beirut that the tribunal is about to indict members of Hezbollah, an armed Shia political movement with close ties to Syria, prompting an angry response from Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader.

His reaction has raised fears of renewed unrest in Lebanon, where Hezbollah and al-Hariri supporters fought in the streets of Beirut in May 2008, bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

Al Hariri's son, Saad, is Lebanon's current prime minister. His mainly Sunni Future Movement has close links to Saudi Arabia and backs the UN tribunal's investigation into his father's death.

Hariri was a Sunni leader with strong links to Saudi Arabia. The international tribunal investigating Hariri’s death has not announced who will be charged, but the leader of Hezbollah said last week members of his group will be among those indicted.

Friday's visit will mark al-Assad's first trip to the country since Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon after the killing of Rafiq al Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in 2005.

Security was tight throughout Beirut on Friday as helicopters buzzed overhead.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s announcement that his militia members would be implicated in Hariri’s slaying appeared to be an attempt to undercut the effects of any indictment, and he dismissed the international tribunal as an “Israeli plot.”

Regional tensions also are high over recent reports that Syria sent Scud missiles to Hezbollah and suspicions that Hezbollah patron Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons. Syria denies sending Scuds.


'Significant visit'

Al Assad's presence in particular is highly significant because Syria is believed by many in Lebanon to have been behind al Hariri's death.

His killing marked a dramatic souring of relations between the two countries, forcing Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, despite its repeated denials of involvement.

Rula Amin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Lebanon, said the joint visit was hugely symbolic.

"These two leaders coming together to Beirut shows the urgency, it shows that they realise the dangers that are lying ahead for Lebanon," she said.

Ties between Damascus and Beirut have improved in recent years, with the two capitals establishing diplomatic ties in 2008. Al Assad's visit to Beirut will be seen as further evidence of a diplomatic thaw between the countries at a crucial time.

The Saudi monarch is expected to ask al Assad to use his influence over Hezbollah to steer the group away from a new confrontation with al-Hariri's supporters.

Hezbollah has responded positively to the visit. "The Arab leaders' visit to Lebanon is an opportunity to show Arab unity in the face of this plot which aims to destabilise Lebanon and sow sedition," Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah member of parliament, said.

Rami Khoury, editor-at-large for Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, said that the country's internal politics were linked to wider regional tensions.

"We have very old and very strong links between all the major players in Lebanon and huge regional and international actors," he said. "It's a very complex situation. That's why all the main struggles in the region are evident here in Lebanon."

Shadi Hamid, the deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, said that the next fortnight in Lebanon will be "crucial."

"There is a risk of escalation, of sectarian violence, and all players involved realise that risk and are taking pre-emptive action to defuse things before they get out of hand in the next weeks and months," Hamid said.






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