BEIRUT,(Reuters) – Five Shi’ite Muslim ministers on Thursday ended a boycott that has paralysed Lebanon and rejoined government after the prime minister deemed Hezbollah guerrillas to be national resistance fighters — a term that would allow them to retain arms.
The Shi’ite ministers suspended their participation on Dec. 12 after the cabinet voted to call for an international tribunal to try suspects in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri almost a year ago.
Talks to secure the five ministers’ return faltered over their demand that the government declare Hezbollah a resistance movement against Lebanon’s arch-foe Israel, and not a militia, which would mean it must disarm according to a U.N. resolution.
“After the position taken by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora … the leaderships of Hezbollah and the Amal movement have decided to return their representatives to participation in the government meetings,” senior Amal official and member of parliament Ali Hassan Khalil told a press conference.
The joint announcement by pro-Syrian Hezbollah and Amal, Lebanon’s main Shi’ite parties, is expected to ease a political crisis that has hobbled decision-making in the government and escalated into a public slanging match between politicians for and against the group keeping its weapons.
But the decision came too late for the Shi’ites to join Thursday’s cabinet meeting, which is being held without them.
In comments to parliament earlier on Thursday, Siniora said Hezbollah had always been considered a resistance organisation, but made no mention of the word militia.
“We have never called and will never call the resistance by any other name but the resistance and it is a national resistance and we will not use any other expression to describe it but national resistance,” he said to applause.
Hezbollah, whose attacks were crucial in ending Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, was the only Lebanese group to keep its arms after the 1975-1990 civil war.
It has been under increasing pressure to lay down its weapons since a U.N. Security Council resolution demanded that all foreign troops withdraw from Lebanon and militias disarm.
Syrian troops ended a 29-year military presence in Lebanon last year under international pressure and local protest following Hariri’s murder, but Hezbollah has kept its arms.
A unanimous U.N. Security Council renewed pressure on Lebanon late last month to disarm the group in line with the resolution issued in 2004.
The United States has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist group while its ally, Syria, is a fixture on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But the Lebanese are deeply divided over whether Hezbollah should keep its arms now that all foreign armies are gone.
“Today’s words eased many of the tensions over the issue of the resistance,” Health Minister Mohammad Khalifeh told Reuters.
“The important thing is it came from the government, represented by the prime minister under the roof of an assembled parliament and not at an ordinary conference.”
The Shi’ite ministers include Energy Minister Mohammad Fneish, a Hizbollah member and its ally Labour Minister Trad Hamadeh. Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh and two ministers from Amal were also involved in the boycott.