Lebanon's pro-Syrian president refused to endorse a draft accord sent to him by the Cabinet to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of a former prime minister.
President Emile Lahoud said on Saturday that the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and his anti-Syria allies had lost its constitutional legitimacy.
The president's action was certain to intensify political and sectarian tensions that have worsened since mass protests over last year's slaying of former prime minister Rafik Hariri forced Syria to end a nearly three-decade military occupation of Lebanon.
The Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its allies were in the ninth day of street protests launched after talks with Siniora's government failed to produce a national unity government. The groups called for a huge demonstration yesterday, saying it would mark an escalation in their attempt to oust the US-backed government.
The president had been expected to reject the tribunal agreement sent to him on Nov. 27. The accord calls for a UN-organized court to try the suspected assassins of Hariri, an opponent of Syrian influence who was killed by a truck bomb last year.
A UN investigation has said the attack's complexity suggested the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role in the assassination. Syria denies involvement.
The move caused Lahoud, a Christian, to say the government should step down because the Constitution requires all of Lebanon's sects to be represented in the Cabinet under the sectarian power-sharing political system.
The Hariri tribunal has become the latest weapon in the battle between pro- and anti-Syria factions over the demand by Hezbollah for a third of the Cabinet's seats, which would give the group and its allies veto power over key decisions, including the accord for the UN tribunal.
The accord not only requires the Cabinet's approval but also the endorsement of Lahoud and parliament, where anti-Syria forces hold a majority. But the UN Security Council could bypass Lebanon and set up the tribunal on its own. The tribunal is envisioned to include a majority of foreign judges and a minority of Lebanese judges.
Siniora's Cabinet is expected to refer the accord to parliament for approval even without Lahoud's signature. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri has signaled he will not convene the assembly.
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