Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Siniora confirms rival camps met in Switzerland

Siniora confirms rival camps met in Switzerland
'This is a good thing ... but no breakthroughs have been reached so far'
By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Fouad Siniora confirmed on Monday that "some Lebanese sides" had held talks in Switzerland, but he said that no major progress had been made in solving the country's ongoing political stalemate. "This is a good thing and we encourage such meetings that allow each side to convey its points of view, but no breakthroughs have been reached so far," Siniora said from Cairo, where he was meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Switzerland recently offered to host talks in Geneva between leaders of the pro-government and opposition camps, local daily As-Safir said in its Monday issue, quoting a Lebanese source. The source said such talks would be held behind closed doors, without media scrutiny.

As-Safir said a Swiss presidential envoy secretly visited Beirut a few weeks ago and met with leaders on both sides of Lebanon's political divide. The source said the UN's top legal adviser, Nicolas Michel, had raised the issue of a Swiss summit with leaders in Beirut last week. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri had reportedly wanted to study the proposal before consenting. Separately, President Emile Lahoud met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Qatar on the sidelines of the 7th Democracy, Development and Free Trade Forum in Doha on Monday to discuss the situation in Lebanon. The talks focused on a proposed international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, according to a statement issued afterward. The UN chief was scheduled to visit Damascus on Tuesday for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

After meeting Mubarak on Monday, Siniora said that "pressure tactics, fearmongering and threats" would result in the paralysis of constitutional and economic institutions in Lebanon and that only "dialogue" could achieve results. "Over the past month it was shown beyond a doubt that such tactics bear no results and it is not in keeping with the nature of the Lebanese system that is built on dialogue and understanding among all parties concerned," Siniora said. The prime minister said the tribunal was a priority, and would serve as a deterrent against future assassinations in Lebanon. "There has to be an international tribunal and we are working hard, exhausting all avenues that would lead to the ratification of the tribunal," the premier said. Siniora added that he would prefer that the tribunal be ratified by Lebanon's Parliament, however, he went on to say that the difference between that option and the establishment of the court through the UN Security Council was the same as the difference between "a natural birth and caesarean section" - in any case, he said, it's the same baby. Siniora discussed with Mubarak developments in Lebanon and the region since their last meeting in Riyadh on the sidelines of the Arab summit last month. The premier, who was accompanied on his visit by Public Works Minister Mohammad al-Safadi, also met in Cairo with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. Siniora said Moussa would resume his efforts at brokering a Lebanese compromise when there was real progress in talks between the Lebanese sides.

"There is no doubt that the Arab initiative that was developed by [Moussa] is the only initiative that can be called comprehensive and currently on the table, and we are, as we have always said, committed to it." Siniora said. Asked if he was waiting for the results of Ban's visit to Syria before sending a second letter requesting UN assistance in the formation of the tribunal, Siniora said that the matter "was discussed in Cabinet and we are following developments closely and will take the suitable decision in this regard." Addressing the question of Israel's occupation of the Shebaa Farms, Siniora said that the territory was not part of the occupied Palestinian territories and asked that Israel withdraw and place the area under UN control until Lebanon and Syria could agree on the border.

Also on Monday, Phalange Party leader and former President Amin Gemayel said there was still a possibility of organizing an internal dialogue to achieve consensus over the presidential elections issue. Speaking at a Phalange Party meeting, Gemayel said the matter of a national unity government had been closed and that the tribunal issue tribunal was now in the hands of the Security Council. "Six months on from the emergence of the current crisis that followed the July war and its impact on the internal situation with the resignation of the six ministers, it is still unclear whether some Lebanese factions still recognize the Lebanese system and the Taif Accord, or whether they are working to re-examine all that and push for a new Constitution," Gemayel said, referring to the opposition. He said the current crisis was never over the signature of a decree or over participation in government or the tribunal, as such matters would not have warranted the damage he said had been wrought on Lebanon. "The real aim is to create a vacuum in the Lebanese system and institutions and push the country toward a new reality under the rule of jungle law, and then to restructure the country on a different basis than we would freely accept," he said. Gemayel said the Lebanese had not made so many sacrifices to see all their achievements erased.

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