Friday, January 04, 2008

Opposition 'plans protests at airport, ports' in Lebanon

Opposition 'plans protests at airport, ports' in Lebanon
Steps to begin if mediation fails
By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The Hizbullah-led opposition is considering staging protests at the Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport, as well as at major ports across Lebanon, Bkirki and the US Embassy in Awkar, according to local media reports on Thursday. The reports were carried by both the Al-Akhbar and Al-Mustaqbal dailies. Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in an interview on NBN television on Wednesday night, warned that the opposition would not "remain silent" in the face of the ruling coalition's attempts to "monopolize rule." He said the opposition would give current mediation efforts a week to 10 days before taking "decisive measures," but did not specify what these measures would be. The opposition is demanding nothing less than veto power in a new government. Hizbullah politburo member Ghaleb Abu Zeinab told The Daily Star that the opposition is waiting to see what will happen. "When a decision is taken to move it would mean all mediation efforts have reached a dead end. We will then evaluate the situation and take steps, and all steps taken will be within the democratic framework," Abu Zeinab said. He did not rule out that such measures would include the closure of the airport road and sea ports and other forms of protest, including sit-ins. "Sayyed Nasrallah did not set a strict deadline of 10 days after which the opposition would take action," Abu Zeinab said. "If the 10 days pass and efforts continue and there is an Arab initiative, for example, we will wait." Abu Zeinab said that Hizbullah and the opposition are very keen to avoid the eruption of any Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife. "We are very careful to avoid such an outcome, but the other side should be equally careful to avoid it, just as we are. In the end we cannot simply sit at home and do nothing," he said.

Al-Akhbar, citing unidentified sources, said the opposition was studying the possibility of closing down the airport and most sea ports in the country. It said the opposition was also examining the prospects of "organizing a large sit-in" near the US Embassy in Awkar and blocking vital roads, in a move reminiscent of January 23 last year when the opposition closed roads and burned tires to protest against what it said was the unconstitutional government. The daily said these "ideas were still under serious debate among various factions to avoid plunging the country into strife." Al-Mustaqbal, meanwhile, said the opposition's plans include organizing a sit-in outside Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite Patriarchate, to protest the Maronite church's stance on the presidential election. It said a similar sit-in at Awkar would be organized to protest US support of the March 14 alliance. Al-Mustaqbal said the aim was to plunge the country into chaos and exhaust security forces, particularly the army. Pro-Syrian politician and former Minister Wiam Wahab said on Thursday that the ongoing presidential crisis is "open-ended," that the Taif Accord is "dead" and that the opposition would shift to "another battle in a few days" to gain veto power in decision-making. Wahab made his comments in remarks to reporters after visiting former President Emile Lahoud. "The opposition will shift to the battle of reforming the [government]. ... The battle for early parliamentary elections will be launched within days and the presidential election battle will be of secondary importance," Wahab said. "Taif is dead. This is the truth. We should reform the authority and we should reconsider powers that Taif took from the presidency," Wahab added. In answering a question as to whether the presidential crisis would persist for a long time, Wahab said: "Seven or eight months, maybe a year. It is open-ended." The Hizbullah-led opposition, according to Wahab, wants a national unity government in which it holds 11 Cabinet posts.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea on Thursday called on Nasrallah to sit and discuss the threats facing Lebanon "whether they are Syrian, American, Israeli or French." Nasrallah had said in his interview that the opposition is not confronting Lebanon's majority, but rather US President George W. Bush and his administration. "If the American agenda poses a threat to Lebanon, then it must be confronted by all the Lebanese people," Geagea said. "There should be consensus, through dialogue, over such a theory and other issues ... That is why we should sit with Sayyed Hassan to discuss ... any agenda, be it Syrian, American, Israeli or French." He said the opposition, which is backed by Syria and Iran, "should take a clear stand regarding all assassinations and bombings, as well as regarding re-launching state institutions." Development and Liberation MP Ali Hassan Khalil, in a statement, accused parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri and his allies of wasting time to avoid reaching a consensus on a presidential candidate by trying to "push for elections through a half-plus-one vote of MPs." Khalil also hit back at Hariri, saying talk about Speaker Nabih Berri's "isolation from negotiations by Syria" and the "diminishing of Nasrallah's role by Iran" are rumors. Hariri had on Wednesday accused Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem of "twisting facts," adding that the French were aware of that. Hariri had also accused Moallem of trying to "isolate Berri from negotiations" and said Syria "aimed to restrict dialogue to Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun." Hariri also accused Moallem of sending a serious message to Lebanon in an attempt to block Arab efforts aimed at settling the ongoing presidential crisis. In a statement released by his press office, Hariri said remarks made by Moallem on Wednesday were a pre-emptive move to block efforts by Arab foreign ministers who are scheduled to tackle the Lebanese crisis in a meeting in Cairo Sunday. Hariri said that Syria wants to block the road for whoever wants to extend a hand to Lebanon to help it emerge from the existing presidential vacuum. He stressed that Lebanese Armed Forces commander General Michel Suleiman is a serious consensus candidate for the presidency. "The list of demands announced by Moallem on behalf of the Syrian regime ... tells the Lebanese that the destiny of their national entente remains in Damascus and that any presidential candidate, General Suleiman included, would not be able to find his way to Baabda Palace without a full understanding with the Syrian regime," Hariri stated.

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