Arab FMs nix Syrian bid to strengthen Hezbollah as 8 killed in Lebanon
Eight people shot dead in opposition demonstrations in Beirut; protests turn violent following death of Amal activists.
Arab foreign ministers on Sunday rejected Syria's demand that Hezbollah and its allies have greater representation in Lebanon's cabinet, according to delegates at an emergency meeting in Cairo.
Meanwhile, eight Lebanese opposition supporters were shot dead in Beirut on Sunday in some of the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, raising tensions in a country gripped by political conflict.
Participants at the Arab League meeting late Sunday said the majority of ministers rejected Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem's request for a new formula for Lebanese politics. Moallem had pushed for Hezbollah to have ten ministers in the next Cabinet - or one-third of the seats - which would effectively give the Hezbollah-led opposition veto power.
Two delegates at the meeting confirmed the information, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. They spoke to The Associated Press by telephone, while the meeting was still under way.
Only Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgam backed the Syrian proposal, the officials said.
Lebanon is embroiled in its worst political crisis since the end of its 1975-90 civil war. Former President Emile Lahoud left office on Nov. 23 without a successor, and parliament has so far failed to elect the army chief to replace him amid bickering between the parliament majority and the opposition.
At Sunday's meeting, Arab League Chief Amr Moussa predicted further violence if Lebanon did not elect a new president by Feb. 11 - a date set by the parliament speaker last week. Earlier Sunday, eight people were killed in Beirut during riots by opposition supporters protesting the government's rationing of electricity.
"If this crisis is not solved, the situation will get out of hand," the delegates quoted Moussa as saying.
Moussa put particular blame for the crisis on pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, saying they intentionally held up the elections with new demands.
"I am convinced that most politicians in Lebanon have contacts and links with foreign parties," Moussa was quoted as saying. He specifically named Syria and Iran, the delegates said.
Earlier this month, Arab foreign ministers - including Moallem - agreed unanimously to the so-called Arab plan, which backs Lebanese Army Gen. Michel Suleiman as the politically divided country's next president. It also calls on Lebanon to form a national unity government and adopt a new election law.
Moussa said Sunday that the Arab plan was the only solution on the table now, and that failing to implement it would put Lebanon in jeopardy.
At the close of the foreign ministers' meeting, participants issued a joint statement calling on all Arab countries to endorse the plan in letter and spirit and to continue efforts to implement it, according to a copy of the statement obtained by the AP.
Source: All eight fatalities member of Hezbollah or Amal A senior Lebanese opposition source said all eight of the the dead were members of Hezbollah or Amal - Shi'ite Muslim groups that have led a political campaign against the anti-Damascus governing coalition. At least 29 more people were wounded.
The opposition has been locked in a power struggle for more than a year with the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. The conflict has fuelled sectarian tensions between Shi'ite Muslims loyal to the opposition and Sunni followers of Saad al-Hariri, who leads the governing coalition.
Sunday's violence spiraled after an Amal activist was shot dead when the army moved to break up a protest over the rationing of electricity.
The army, seen as neutral in the political crisis, had fired in the air to disperse the initial protest. It said it was investigating who was behind the initial shooting, which it said killed two people.
Bursts of gunfire were heard into the night. Gunmen were seen in Shi'ite and Christian streets near the scene of the shooting in Mar Makhaeil.
In nearby Ain Roummaneh, the site of a massacre that had triggered Lebanon's civil war, a hand grenade wounded seven people, security sources said. Cars there were set ablaze.
It was the worst civil strife in Beirut since clashes a year ago between supporters of the governing coalition and its Syrian-backed rivals.
Efforts to end the Lebanese crisis have been complicated by rivalry between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which backs the governing coalition. U.S. rivalry with Iran, which supports Hezbollah, is also partly to blame, analysts say.
Protesters used blazing tires to block several main roads, including the highway to the airport. The protests spread beyond the capital to Shi'ite villages in the south and the Bekaa Valley to the east.
Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, called on its followers to halt the protests.
"We have no link to this action. We call on people not to react. We call on them to pull out of the streets," senior Amal official Ali Hassan Khalil told reporters.
Hezbollah, which leads the opposition alliance, used loudspeakers to urge calm.
Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo on Sunday to review Arab League efforts to mediate an end to the political conflict, which has left Lebanon without a president since November.
Security sources said one soldier was injured when protesters threw stones at the initial demonstration.
Rival leaders have agreed that army chief General Michel Suleiman should be the next president. But his election to the post has been held up by a dispute over the make-up of a new government.