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French Version

Siniora brushes off Berri's call for dialogue

Parliament speaker says Syria 'has no conditions at all on an inter-Lebanese accord'

Parliament Speaker and key opposition figure Nabih Berri issued a new call for dialogue between his country's feuding political factions on Monday but was swiftly rebuffed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"I tell our people in Lebanon, the Arabs and the world, that our brothers in Syria have no conditions at all on an inter-Lebanese accord," Berri told reporters. "On the contrary, they are ready for any help they might be asked for."

But after talks in Cairo, the Lebanese prime minister said the time for internal dialogue was over and called for an urgent meeting of Arab foreign ministers on the crisis which has left Lebanon without a president for more than four months.

In Damascus, Berri said his visit had provided him "with a new boost to launch a dialogue in Lebanon aimed at electing [head of the Lebanese Armed Forces] General Michel Suleiman to the Lebanese presidency."

Berri intends to gather Lebanon's political leaders for talks before April 22 when Parliament is due to convene for a fresh attempt to elect a president, his spokesman Ali Hamdan said.

But Siniora rejected the idea outright after talks with Arab League chief Amr Moussa in the Egyptian capital. "The path to a solution through dialogue no longer exists in Lebanon at present," he said.

The Western-backed Siniora has been touring pro-Western Arab capitals in a bid to shore up support for his beleaguered government. Two of his main Arab backers - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah - are to hold a summit on the Lebanese crisis in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on Wednesday, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency announced.

Both leaders boycotted an Arab summit in Damascus last month in protest at what they said was Syria's negative role in the Lebanese crisis.

After his talks with Berri on Monday, the Syrian president offered to help bolster security in Lebanon and voiced support for inter-Lebanese talks.

Syria "stands ready to provide all possible help which the Lebanese could request, to guarantee security and stability in Lebanon," Assad said, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

The Syrian president also expressed support for "an internal Lebanese dialogue" saying such talks between Beirut's feuding politicians would help resolve the crisis that has plagued Lebanon for more than a year.

The Lebanese government and opposition have both agreed on Suleiman as a consensus candidate for the presidency but continue to bicker about the make-up of a new Cabinet.

Parliamentary sessions to vote for a new president have been postponed 17 times since last September.

After talks with Mubarak on Sunday, Siniora accused Syria - for decades the main powerbroker here - of holding his country hostage by blocking the election of a new president.

The Reform and Change parliamentary bloc welcomed Berri's call for dialogue "as long as the goals of dialogue were clear and free from foreign intervention and conditions," according to a statement issued after the bloc's weekly meeting.

The bloc said the government's decision to boycott the Arab summit, followed by Sinio-ra's meetings in capitals across the Arab world and request for an Arab foreign ministers meeting to solve the continuing impasse, was "requesting and rejecting the same thing."

On behalf of the bloc, MP Ibrahim Kanaan said the Reform and Change meeting covered the recent Israeli maneuvers near its border with Lebanon.

Kanaan said the possibility of a meeting between bloc leader MP Michel Aoun and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir would be decided by the two parties involved.

MP Michel Murr said on Monday that he was never a member of Aoun's Reform and Change bloc but was rather "aligned with it."

"I am neither with the opposition, nor with the majority," Murr told reporters following a meeting with British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Mary Guy.

"I have been independent ever since I started my political career ... I support any side that can promote a settlement to the crisis," Murr added.

The former deputy premier expressed his support for the separate Arab tours launched by both Siniora and Berri.

However, Murr said he has "high hopes" on the outcome of Berri's Arab tour.

"Everybody awaits the outcome of Speaker Berri's Arab tour, especially his visits to Damascus and Riyadh. These are the two major capitals and Speaker Berri can play a major role during this tour," he added.

"If [Berri's] Arab tour was positive, and if Syria and Saudi Arabia dismantled major obstacles ... that would reflect positively on dialogue," Murr said.

Also commenting on recent political developments on the Lebanese political scene and Berri's call for dialogue, Lebanese Forces (LF) boss Samir Geagea said the ruling March 14 coalition has taken upon itself the responsibility of "saving Lebanon."

"The March 14 Forces has taken the responsibility of saving Lebanon; nothing else can save it," Geagea said.

"The plan of adversaries and enemies at the present time is insidious and aims at diluting the situation, exhausting the people and disrupting everything to lead the people to desperation and frustration," Geagea added. "But we have to keep our faith that the battle will be victorious."

The LF leader said the future would prove the validity of his words adding that, "as a case in point, the group which enjoyed a 60 or 70 percent popularity [in the 2005 parliamentary polls] currently gathers not more that 20 or 30 percent," in reference to Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement.

Geagea said that if freedom and democracy could not be achieved in Lebanon, "then it cannot be achieved in any countries in the Middle East."

"Rest assured that this gray phase is transient ... We are taking all precautions to win our confrontation as soon as possible," he added.

Beirut 08-04-2008
The Daily Star

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