BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s fractious leaders are seeking to overcome the nation’s high-stakes political crisis after violence between government and opposition supporters sparked fears of a return to civil war.
Political sources said Saturday that Nabih Berri, the Shiite Muslim speaker of the Lebanese parliament, had engaged in telephone talks with Fuad Siniora, the Sunni Muslim prime minister, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a key supporter of Siniora’s embattled government.
“We’re at a crossroads,” a close adviser to Berri told AFP on Saturday.
“If those in power continue to reject all solutions that would satisfy all sides, there will be a third round of violence, and then no one would be able to halt a slide to civil war.”
Meanwhile, the Sunni parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, a staunch opponent of Syrian involvement in Lebanon, said he was ready to meet Hassan Nasrallah, who heads the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shiite opposition group Hezbollah.
“There is no other choice but to return to dialogue,” Hariri said.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul Aziz Khoja, meanwhile met separately Saturday with Siniora and Berri, who have not met face-to-face since November when six opposition ministers — five Shiites and an allied Christian — quit Siniora’s cabinet, triggering the current crisis.
“It is time for the Lebanese to unite and save the country,” the diplomat said afterwards.
Fears of a return to events seen during Lebanon’s devastating 1975-90 civil war resurfaced when a general strike Tuesday — called by Hezbollah to force Siniora’s government to resign — brought the nation to a standstill and, in some places, turned violent with three killed.
Trouble flared anew Thursday when riots between Sunni and Shiites in south Beirut erupted, leaving four dead and 152 injured, and prompting the Lebanese army to impose an overnight curfew for the first time in a decade.
Gunmen were seen on rooftops for the first time in years and masked men demanded identity papers at roadblocks, as hard-pressed government troops struggled to keep the pro- and anti-government camps apart.
Siniora — whose government enjoys US, European and Saudi support — was in Paris when the riots broke out, securing 7.6 billion dollars (6.1 billion euros) in international aid to keep Lebanon’s fragile economy intact after last year’s crippling 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters.
In downtown Beirut, meanwhile, a Hezbollah-led sit-in outside the prime minister’s office entered its 58th day Saturday, demanding that Siniora make way for a national unity government — with veto powers for the opposition.
The education ministry announced that schools and universities, closed since Thursday, would not reopen before Wednesday, or after the end of Ashura, the Shiite period of remembrance for the slain 7th century Imam Hussein.
Iran, Hezbollah’s principal backer, and its regional rival Saudi Arabia, which supports Siniora’s government, held a series of contacts this week on what Iranian state television called “the critical situation in Lebanon.”
Political analyst and law professor Sami Salhab said all-out war hinges on sectarian leaders taking the fateful decision to go that far — which Hezbollah in particular is unlikely to do without Iran’s green light.
“This is the ideal moment for political leaders, especially those in the opposition who are unable to withdraw (their supporters) from the streets, to instruct their people to step back in favour of dialogue.”