Wed, Nov 29, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Lebanese president set to reject assassination accord

SYRIAN SYMPATHIES The standoff between the pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian forces is set to come to a head over the approval of a UN tribunal into the killing of Rafik Hariri


The Cabinet sent a draft accord to President Emile Lahoud, seeking to create a tribunal to try suspects in the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, further ratcheting up the power struggle between the country's pro-Western and pro-Syrian forces.

Lahoud, who is pro-Syrian, is expected to decline to endorse the agreement sent to him on Monday. The accord would set up the UN-backed court in a location outside Lebanon.

For opponents of Syria, the court is a major priority -- one they hope will uncover the truth behind the assassination in February last year of Hariri which they accuse Damascus of orchestrating. Syria denies the claim.

Six pro-Syrian Cabinet ministers, including all the Shiites, resigned from the Cabinet earlier this month shortly before the government gave initial approval to the tribunal.

The move caused Lahoud to say the government should step down because the constitution requires all sects to be represented in the Cabinet. But Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is backed by the US and anti-Syrian factions, has refused to resign, saying the Cabinet meetings still reached the quorum necessary to make decisions, including the approval of the tribunal.

A spokesman for Lahoud said the accord had arrived at the Presidential Palace. Asked how Lahoud would respond, spokesman Rafik Shalala reiterated the president regards the Cabinet as having "lost its constitutional legitimacy after the resignation of the Shiite ministers."

The tribunal has also become the latest weapon in the battle between the Hezbollah-aligned factions and the anti-Syrian parties over the demand by Hezbollah for a third of the Cabinet's seats. Securing one third of the seats would give Hezbollah and its supporters veto power over key decisions, including the UN document setting up the tribunal.

Hezbollah is threatening to call mass demonstrations unless it and its allies obtain a veto-wielding share of the Cabinet -- a demand that Saniora and the anti-Syrian parties have rejected.

On Monday night, several hundred troops and police separated about 700 anti- and pro-Syrian supporters who traded insults and threw glass bottles at each other in Beirut's Christian Ashrafieh neighborhood. Army commandos and riot police dispersed the crowd two hours later. There was no immediate word on any casualties.

On Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the leader of the Shiite party Amal, Nabih Berri, said they supported the creation of the tribunal, but indicated that their priority was to achieve greater representation in Cabinet. They pledged to press their case "by using all available democratic and legal means" -- a reiteration of the threat to hold mass protests.

The tribunal accord needs to be approved by the parliament, but the speaker, Berri, supports the view that the Cabinet is no longer constitutional.

The crisis threatened to become explosive on Nov. 21 when an anti-Syrian Cabinet minister, Pierre Gemayel of the Christian Phalange Party, was assassinated in Beirut. The sixth killing of an anti-Syrian figure in the past two years raised fears of the country returning to the sectarian violence of the 1975-90 civil war.

On Monday, the technical team of the UN commission investigating Hariri's assassination examined the scene where Gemayel was shot, the official National News Agency reported.

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