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French Version

Opposition plays coy on timing of promised protests

Ex-defense minister says date 'has been set' as diplomats try to defuse crisis

Hizbullah and its allies have set a date and locations for demonstrations aimed at either forcing the government to resign of bringing about early parliamentary elections, former Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Mrad said Friday.

The announcement came one day after Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told supporters to be ready to take to the streets.

"In the very near future we will witness wide demonstrations in various areas. The date has been set but we will not announce it yet," Mrad told reporters following a meeting of pro-Syrian parties.

The coalition includes the Union Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the People's Movement and the Baath Party, among others.

Mrad added that all parties have agreed to stage peaceful street protests until a national unity government is formed.

Hizbullah politburo member Mahmoud Qomati said participants in the demonstrations will also include the Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Beirut Gathering.

The FPM said in a statement issued following its weekly meeting that its members "will practice their democratic and constitutional right of demonstrating to correct the political representation."

"The only safety net for this country is a national unity government where all movements take part ... If it becomes impossible to form this [unity] government then the solution would be through early parliamentary elections," it added.

Qomati, who participated in the meeting of the alliance, said: "It is a wide move ... striped of any sectarian or religious feature and gathers all the national parties regardless of their religious belonging."

He added, however, that Hizbullah was still willing to discuss potential solutions to the deadlock, "on the condition that they lead to the formation of a national unity government where all parties are represented equally, or early parliamentary elections."

Qomati's statement coincided with increased diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis before it spills into street protests that many are worried could threaten national stability.

The National News Agency reported Monday that a potential solution being discussed centered on the pro-Syrian forces endorsing an international tribunal to try those accused of former Premier Rafik Hariri's assassination in exchange for a national unity government.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Beirut, Abdel-Aziz Khoja, is leading diplomatic efforts, negotiating primarily between Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Khoja said he is still hoping leaders will reach a deal if they resume national talks, sponsored by Berri, which broke down last week.

"All Lebanese leaders have the desire to find solutions to end the crisis," Khoja told reporters following a meeting with Berri on Monday. He later met with Siniora, but did not comment on their discussion.

Egypt's ambassador to Lebanon, Hussein Darrar, said following a meeting with pro-Syria former Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh that Cairo encouraged all Lebanese leaders to resume the national talks as they were the only way to end the crisis given Lebanon's system of power-sharing.

"Both parties are insisting on their positions. If it was not for that the problem would have been solved ... We are working with everyone to bring different viewpoints closer and to eliminate differences," Darrar said.

The Central News Agency quoted sources close to Berri as saying the speaker wanted "concrete promises" on the formation of a national unity government before calling for the talks to resume.

Berri's parliamentary bloc met Monday and issued a statement urging the speedy formation of a national unity government, but did not say whether it would participate in protests.

The March 14 Forces said once again on Monday that they are willing to expand Siniora's government to give the opposition veto power, but only once the statutes and the framework of the international tribunal are approved.

"We have offered an honorable compromise ... and we are then ready to discuss all issues, including expanding the government," Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt said in remarks that will be published Tuesday in Al-Anbaa magazine.

Phalange Party leader and former President Amin Gemayel said the anti-Syrian coalition is ready to accept any compromise that guarantees Lebanon will no longer be used "as an arena for regional and international conflicts."

Parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri, son of the slain premier, said the pro-Syrian parties are demanding veto power to hinder the formation of the tribunal, an international aid conference to be held in Paris in January and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

"The problem is their regional allies' fear of the international court," Hariri said in a separate interview with Al-Anbaa to be published Tuesday.

The Lebanese Forces said in a statement also released following a weekly meeting that all attempts to force Siniora's government to resign were aimed at returning the country to Syrian tutelage.

Beirut 21-11-2006
Nada Bakri
The Daily Star

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