Lebanon prime minister accuses Hezbollah of staging coup
U.S. calls on Iran, Syria to halt support for Hezbollah, but Tehran blames Israel, Washington for violence in Beirut.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on the army on Saturday to restore law and order across Lebanon and remove gunmen from the streets, accusing Hezbollah of staging an armed coup.
But Siniora also backed away from the government decisions that triggered the street confrontations, which killed 37 people in four days.
Hezbollah seized the Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut Thursday after its leader Hassan Nasrallah accused the U.S.-backed government of declaring war on his group by its recent decision to consider the group's communications network illegal and remove the airport security chief for alleged ties to the militants.
Siniora said Saturday the decision on the communications issue would be dealt with by the army, which promptly overturned the two anti-Hezbollah measures on Saturday.
The army said in a statement it was keeping the head of the security at Beirut airport in his post and that it would handle Hezbollah's communications network in a way "that would not harm public interest and the security of the resistance."
Soon thereafter, Hezbollah agreed to retreat from the neighborhoods it had seized.
Siniora also said Lebanon can no longer tolerate Hezbollah keeping freely its weapons - signaling that the U.S.-backed government was toughening its stand against the Shi'ite militant opposition group despite the government coalition's loss of ground in street fighting in Beirut in the past few days.
Siniora's harsh criticism of Hezbollah, his first since the fighting began, was bound to further escalate the fierce power struggle between the government and Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition.
Addressing the army, he said: "I call on it once again to impose security on all, in all areas, deter the gunmen and immediately remove them from the street ... to restore normal life."
Although he talked tough, his embattled government appears unable to move against Hezbollah or force the army to act. The army has stayed out of the fighting and has deployed troops in the last 24 hours in some areas to protect besieged leaders of the pro-government factions. But it has not intervened with the Shiite fighters who seized large areas of Muslim west Beirut from pro-government Sunnis.
Siniora has been holed up at his government headquarters protected by Lebanese troops after Hezbollah and its allies swept through the Muslim sector of the capital after sectarian clashes that have killed 25 people.
"We can no longer accept that Hezbollah and its weapons be kept like this. The Lebanese can no longer continue to accept this situation," he said in a nationally televised addressed.
But he said government was not planning on forcefully attempting to disarm the group which has fought Israel in the 2006 Second Lebanon War and possesses a huge arsenal of rockets and guns along with thousands of fighters. He said the fate of the weapons would have to be decided through state institutions and dialogue.
"The dream of democracy in Lebanon has been dealt a poisonous stab the armed coup carried out by Hezbollah and its allies," he said, saying Beirut was an occupied, besieged city by Hezbollah and its allies.
"Hezbollah must realize that the force of arms will not intimidate us or make us retreat from our position," he said.
Arab League ministers to meet on Lebanese crisisArab foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the crisis in Lebanon, the Arab League said on Saturday.
"The Arab League council at the ministerial level will hold an emergency session on Sunday to discuss the Lebanese crisis and how to deal with it," the League said in a statement.The meeting came after Saudi Arabia and Egypt - both supporters of the pro-Western Lebanese government - called for an emergency session to discuss the crisis, the worst in Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war.
Syria's Arab League envoy Youssef Ahmed said that the Syrian foreign minister might not attend the meeting, Egypt's MENA news agency reported.
"Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem might not head his country's delegation at tomorrow's emergency meeting of the Arab foreign minister's council... due to work in Damascus," MENA quoted Ahmed as saying, adding he would head the Syrian team.
Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon under international pressure after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, would not favor a meeting that is likely to condemn the actions of its main ally in Lebanon.
The current violence came following more than 17 months of deadlock over the election of a new president for Lebanon.
Earlier on Saturday, an Arab League official in Cairo said that the ministers would call for an immediate agreement on the forming of a Lebanese national unity government and the election of army chief General Michel Suleiman as president.
They would also call for a team of "politicians, intellectuals and neutral parties" to work on drafting a new electoral law after the election of Suleiman, the official who declined to be identified added.
Hesham Youssef, Secretary-General Amr Moussa's chief of staff, said that a new president had to be elected before a cabinet could be formed.
"The first clause of the (Arab) initiative is about the election of the president, the second clause is about forming a government, the third clause is about the electoral law," Youssef said.
White House calls on Iran, Syria to halt support for HezbollahThe White House said on Friday it was "very troubled" by Hezbollah's actions in Beirut, where its fighters routed forces loyal to Lebanon's government, and urged Iran and Syria to halt support for the Lebanese militant group.
"We have confidence in the government of Lebanon," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters after Hezbollah took control of the Muslim half of Beirut, tightening its grip in a major blow to Siniora.
"We are very troubled by the recent actions of Hezbollah," he said in Crawford, Texas, where U.S. President George W. Bush was at his ranch preparing for his daughter's wedding.
Johndroe said the United States called on Hezbollah to "stop their attempt to defy the lawful decisions taken taken by the democratically elected Lebanese government."
"We also urge Iran and Syria to stop their support of Hezbollah and its destabilizing effect on the government of Lebanon," he said. Bush has led international campaigns aimed at diplomatically isolating Tehran and Damascus.
"The United States stands firmly with the Lebanese government and the people of Lebanon," Johndroe said.
Bush is due to meet Siniora on May 18 at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh at the end of a week-long visit to the Middle East.
Johndroe said the talks were expected to go ahead at this point but that U.S. officials would understand if Siniora decided to stay in Lebanon to deal with the situation there.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned leaders in the region about the events in Lebanon, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington.
"I would restate our unswerving commitment and support for the Siniora government," he said. "They are doing all the right things. ... Its use and deployment of the military serve the best interests of the Lebanese people and Lebanon."
Peres says Beirut violence is 'a tragedy for all of us'President Shimon Peres played down Israeli concerns at Hezbollah's move to expand its control, but said he hoped the Lebanese people would step back from the brink of civil war.
Peres called the latest round of violence a "tragedy," but classified it as an "internal split" having nothing to do with Israel.
"It's not a total surprise. We knew that Hezbollah is going to divide the country and lead it to the verge of a civil war," Peres told reporters.
"It has nothing to do with Israel. It's an internal split," Peres said. "It's a tragedy for them. It's a tragedy for all of us. And I hope that at the last moment they will save themselves from a bloody civil war."
Abbas urges Palestinians to stay out of conflictMeanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the some 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon to stay out of the current conflict between the Western-backed government and the Iranian and Syrian-backed opposition.
Abbas also warned against attempts to drag the Palestinians into the ongoing fighting between Hezbollah and forces loyal to the government.
Abbas told reporters in Ramallah that he was "following with concern" developments in Lebanon and urged the warring parties not to "drag the country into a more critical situation."
"We are concerned about Lebanon's unity and safety and we want the best relations with all its parties," he said.
"We are temporary guests there until we can return to Palestine and until then, and from previous painful experiences, we should remain neutral and respect the official Lebanese institutions and laws," he said.
Iran says trying to end tensions in Lebanon, blames U.S., IsraelIran said it was working to end the violence in Lebanon and blamed Israel and the United States for the latest tensions, the Tehran press reported Saturday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said that Iran was continuing all possible efforts to help the various political groups in Lebanon find an understanding and end the tensions.
Hosseini said "adventurous intervention" by the U.S. and Israel was the main cause for the escalation in Lebanon.
Iran has denied providing military aid to Lebanon's radical groups and said that the nature of Tehran's support for Hezbollah was solely of a political and spiritual nature.
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