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French Version

Still no deal on Lebanese president as time runs short

Rival leaders hold 11th-hour talks in effort to prevent vacuum in top post

Agreement on a new president remained elusive on Wednesday as Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa ended his round of talks and left Lebanon, saying only that nothing has changed but that some hope still remains for consensus.

A joint news conference by Moussa and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner at the Residence des Pins was cancelled at the last minute. Moussa said he could return to Lebanon on Friday, while Kouchner said that he would remain until then.

Meanwhile, parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri met with Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun late Wednesday evening to try to resolve the impasse. Both also received phone calls from French President Nicolas Sarkozy late Wednesday.

Moussa said the crisis was complex and while no progress was made toward removing obstacles to consensus, "matters are now more precise." Moussa met Wednesday with Premier Fouad Siniora, Speaker Nabih Berri and Democratic Gathering leader MP Walid Jumblatt before visiting UN House.

Former President Amin Gemayel has said he would remain in contact with both Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea and Aoun, as well as other opposition leaders, in the last few hours remaining to work on resolving the political impasse. Gemayel, who met with Kouchner in Bikfaya Wednesday, told reporters that it was vital to avoid a vacuum in the top post.

"We have to combine our efforts to elect a president committed to Lebanon's sovereignty, its independence and future," Gemayel said.

Kouchner told reporters from Bikfaya that "Friday is another day and there will be pleasant surprises." He said Gemayel's efforts are supplementary and supportive of the French initiative, which complements the initiative of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir.

"We need to have a candidate who can secure the votes of the electoral body in Parliament on Friday and we will see how the situation develops," Kouchner said.

Salim al-Sayegh, Gemayel's adviser, told The Daily Star that the former president would work to set up a meeting in the remaining 48 hours among the main Christian leaders in the country to find a solution to the political deadlock. "[Gemayel] feels a window of opportunity still exists ... to hold a gathering of Christian leaders, not an ice-breaking session, but intensive consultations that could lead to some common ground being reached to resolve the deadlock," Sayegh said.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Syria on Wednesday to stop interfering in Lebanon's stalled election process and allow its neighbor to chose a new president without intimidation.

Rice said she telephoned Kouchner as well as Moussa on Wednesday to discuss how to break the deadlock.

"The Lebanese need to be able to carry out their constitutional processes here," Rice said of the stalled presidential vote.

"It really ought to be decided without foreign interference and certainly without any foreign intimidation. Those messages have been very clearly sent," Rice told reporters.

"You hear all the time that Syria says that it wants to improve relations with the Arab world, wants to improve relations with the United States. Well, stepping back and letting the Lebanese choose a president for Lebanon would be an awfully good start," Rice said.

Asked whether she thought there had been any change in Syrian behavior since her recent meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Rice replied: "No."

At an informal meeting of the UN General Assembly Wednesday, UN chief Ban Ki Moon warned of "a real possibility for a confrontation" in Lebanon if the country fails to elect a president by the end of this week. Ban visited Lebanon last week to urge political leaders to reach agreement on electing a new president.

A senior March 14 political source told The Daily Star there has been a lot of "horse trading" between the majority and opposition over the possibility of former Minister Michel Edde serving as interim president for an 18-month term. Edde would in this period push through a new electoral law and lead the coun-try to the 2009 general elections.

The source said that MP Robert Ghanem was a "distant second" for the presidency.

Meanwhile, Future Movement MP Ammar Houri told Voice of Lebanon Wednesday morning that Hariri officially told Berri Tuesday night that the March 14 alliance does not support Edde as president.

Siniora, in a statement issued Wednesday, called on MPs to elect a new president at this "crucial hour."

"The Lebanese look to you, all the Lebanese, their hearts, their minds and their hopes, look to you, so meet their expectations and be up to the challenge," he said, calling on MPs to save the country as they did in Taif, referring to the Taif Accord signed by MPs in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in 1989, ending the 1975-90 Civil War.

Siniora regretted that such divisions persist on the anniversary of Lebanon's 64th year as an independent country, but said he had not lost hope that Parliament would elect a president on time as long as "men of good intentions" were around, chief among them Sfeir.

Berri, meanwhile, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Bukin, Moussa and Kouchner at Ain al-Tineh Wednesday. The speaker also called Sfeir to congratulate him on Lebanon's Independence Day.

Bukin told reporters after the meeting that Russia has a firm belief in the need to continue efforts being exerted by both sides of the Lebanese political divide so that "Lebanon awakens on the morning of November 24 with a new president who is recognized as legitimate by all the Lebanese."

Bukin said there was still opportunity for consensus to be reached and to elect a president "made in Lebanon."

"We rely on the wisdom of all the parties and political leaders in this country, on their political suppleness that will serve to allow the election to take place for the good of the country," he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who wrapped up a visit to Damascus on Wednesday afternoon, urged the Syrian regime to play a positive role regarding the Lebanese presidential election or at least not be a barrier to inter-Lebanese accord on the subject.

Democratic Gathering leader MP Walid Jumblatt, speaking to the daily As-Safir, said he would not block a settlement to elect a new president, declaring his support for any presidential candidate named in a list drawn up by Sfeir, including Edde.

Jumblatt's stance seems to contradict the position taken by other members of the March 14 alliance, who have rejected Edde on the grounds that he is being "imposed" on them by the opposition.

"I had advised [Edde] to stay at an equal distance from both the majority and the opposition," Jumblatt said. "My advice to everybody without exception, particularly the Christians, is that safeguarding Lebanon's peace and Taif requires compromise from everyone."

Jumblatt also said that he did not mind leaving the implementation of international resolutions to be agreed on during national dialogue after the presidential election.

The paper reported that Jumblatt informed Berri of his stance and told him that "we don't want the implementation of international resolutions over the corpses of the Lebanese," adding that people "would not forgive us for any bloodshed on the streets."

He said it was imperative that the Lebanese come out of their current "dark tunnel" as quickly as possible.

US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman met Marada Party chief and former Minister Suleiman Franjieh Wednesday. The meeting lasted for just over an hour, after which Feltman left without any comment to the media.

Italian and Spanish foreign ministers to join French counterpart in Beirut in bid to help break deadlock

Beirut 22-11-2007
The Daily Star

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