BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – A Russian and a U.N. envoy were involved Tuesday in what may be a last-ditch attempt to win approval from Lebanon’s opposing camps for an international tribunal in the killing of a former prime minister, a divisive issue that has threatened the country’s stability.
The issue of an international tribunal that would prosecute suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri has sharply polarized Lebanon.
The parliament has stalled approving a draft agreement with the United Nations on the tribunal, paralyzed by a political crisis between the government, which demands the tribunal be set up, and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which wants to discuss the terms of setting up the court first. The crisis turned violent earlier this year, killing nine people.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Sultanov, said upon arriving in Beirut late Monday that Russia was eager to help find a compromise, not impose a solution. “This matter is for the Lebanese to decide,” Sultanov said.
The Lebanese should find common ground, Sultanov told reporters at the airport, adding, “We don’t want to force the Lebanese” (to decide).
Along with Sultanov, the top U.N. legal chief Nicolas Michel was flying in later Tuesday to help overcome the impasse.
The Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the parliamentary majority have asked the United Nations to impose the Hariri tribunal, a step by which the world body would bypass the Lebanese legislature.
But the Hezbollah-led opposition has warned that such intervention could spell more trouble for the country.
Russia is a veto-wielding member of the Syria as well its allies in the Lebanese opposition.
After talks with Saniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a key opposition leader, Sultanov was scheduled to travel Wednesday to Syria, which remains an important player despite last year’s withdrawal of its army from Lebanon in the wake of Hariri’s assassination.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also was scheduled to visit Syria next week. During a March visit to Lebanon, he urged the Lebanese to compromise on the tribunal. Michel, the U.N. undersecretary-general for legal affairs who helped draft the treaty on the tribunal, will try to break an impasse between Lebanese political leaders and “clarify all concerns or apprehensions,” Ban told reporters last week after discussing the issue with U.N. Security Council members.
Michel has said he would stay in Lebanon as long as needed, but stressed that the United Nations had no intention of getting involved in Lebanon’s “internal controversy.” The opposition claims it does not object to the tribunal itself but insists the parliament majority accede to its demand for a greater share in government and a veto power over key decisions.
Opposition campaigners have been camping outside Saniora’s downtown office since Dec. 1, paralyzing large parts of the capital’s commercial downtown to demand his resignation. Saniora has refused to step down.
The anti-Syrian majority in Parliament blames Damascus for killing Hariri, an accusation Syria vehemently denies, and say the Syrians were using its Lebanese allies to undermine the formation of the tribunal.