Last updated: 24 October, 2012

Lebanon president seeks all-party talks on new government

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman is pressing for all-party talks on forming a new government amid US pressure for assurances the country will be free of Syria’s influence, his office said Wednesday.

Lebanon has been in crisis since police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan was killed Friday in a Beirut car bombing blamed on Damascus, and opposition leaders have demanded Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s resignation.

A high-ranking official told AFP Sleiman “has begun consultations with the leading figures of the country, in the context of the national dialogue, to discuss the possibility of forming a new government.”

He said if the envisaged dialogue “were to result in agreement on the form of a new government that can pull Lebanon out of its impasse, then Mr Mikati could present his resignation and the process of forming the government could begin.”

Mikati said at the weekend that he had accepted Sleiman’s request to stay on for the time being in the “national interest.”

Sleiman is now canvassing political leaders to assess whether they are prepared to join a dialogue.

The principal opposition March 14 coalition led by former premier Saad Hariri has already said it will not participate in any dialogue until Mikati resigns.

March 14 Secretary General Fares Soueid said on Wednesday that Mikati must go.

“This government and the parties supporting it are facilitating the plan of the criminal Assad regime in Lebanon,” a reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Sleiman has also spoken with Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite party allied with Syria and Iran, and MP Mohammed Raad told him they are prepared to talk.

And he met with Amin Gemayel, head of the opposition rightwing Falange movement, who was non-committal, officials said.

The United States and the European Union, both anxious to ward off any further Syrian interference in Lebanon, have separately warned against creating a political vacuum.

“We don’t want to see a vacuum of legitimate political authority that could then be taken advantage of by the Syrians or by others that could create even greater instability and violence,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.

“We call on all parties in Lebanon to support the process that President Sleiman is leading to choose a responsible effective, government that can address the threats… and hold accountable those responsible for last week’s bombing.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called Lebanon “not to get caught up” in the Syrian crisis, in spite of Damascus.

US Ambassador Maura Connelly met with Sleiman to reiterate Washington’s support for efforts “to build an effective government and take the necessary next steps” in the wake of Hassan’s murder, the embassy said.

Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon put the blame for Hassan’s murder on Israel and on Sunni extremists, in remarks after meeting Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour.

“I am upset by the accusations being made against my country,” Ali Abdel Karim Ali said. “Syria has nothing to do with this criminal act and has condemned it.

“Lebanon’s stability is in the interest of Syria, which is facing a domestic crisis and a plot in which intelligence agents of Europe, the world and the region are implicated,” he said.

When asked by journalists if Israel were behind the attack, he said the Jewish state “profits from the destabilisation of Lebanon.”

“I also accuse the takfiriyne (Sunni extremists) who find their interest in chaos,” the National News Agency quoting him as saying.

Hassan’s murder has sparked fears of new inter-confessional strife in Lebanon. Much of the Sunni community opposes Assad’s regime and most Shiites support him, while Christians are divided.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said he does not believe the government will fall or yield to demands that it resign.

“It could be that the discussions, either in public, or even behind the scenes, might lead to a government of national unity that would incorporate the actual cabinet plus others from the opposition,” he said.

“I do not see any other outcome.”