BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Hezbollah renewed its threats to hold mass protests to bring down the U.S.-backed government ahead of a key Cabinet meeting Saturday to approve an international tribunal to try suspects in the killing of a former prime minister.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri issued a statement Friday reiterating Hezbollah’s demand for representation by it and its allies in the government that would give it effective veto power.
To obtain their goal, they vowed to use “all democratic and legal means,” a reference to peaceful demonstrations. The resignation earlier this month of six pro-Hezbollah ministers and the assassination of a Christian Cabinet minister last week have fueled political tensions in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Fouad Saniora said Saturday he would be willing to postpone “for a few days” the Cabinet meeting to approve the tribunal if the six ministers would return to the government.
If the Cabinet approves the tribunal, as it is expected to do, that is expected to spark a new round of disagreements. Before the United Nations pushes ahead with setting it up, the Lebanese president must approve the document and then parliament must ratify it.
But Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud, who is closely allied to Syria, has expressed reservations on the draft document setting up the tribunal to try the suspects in the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Lahoud has described the government’s approval of that document earlier this month as illegitimate and has said that Saturday’s Cabinet meeting would be “unconstitutional” because of the absence of the six ministers. The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority in Lebanon has accused the president of seeking to block the tribunal, a charge he denies.
Further complicating matters, Syria suggested Friday it may not cooperate with the planned tribunal because Damascus was not consulted on the plan, according to a letter it sent to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and circulated Friday at the U.N. Security Council.
Syria said in the letter that the tribunal should not be arranged until after the investigation is finished and announced that hasty adoption of the court’s statute “will firmly establish our belief that Syria has no connection with this tribunal.”
Saniora has urged Damascus to cooperate with the planned tribunal. In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Friday night, he stressed that Syria’s cooperation “is necessary to calm the situation in Lebanon,” according to a German government statement issued Saturday.
An ongoing U.N. investigation into the February 2005 truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others has said the killing’s complexity suggested the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role in the assassination. Syria denies involvement.
In a gesture toward the government and the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, which regard the U.N. court as a priority, Nasrallah and Berri said in their Friday statement that they supported the creation of the tribunal.
But they accused their opponents of using the issue to block their demands for greater representation in Cabinet. They pledged to press their “demand by using all available democratic and legal means,” a reiteration of threats to hold nonviolent protests. When Nasrallah first demanded more Cabinet seats earlier this month, he said that Hezbollah would call demonstrations to bring down the government if its demands were not met. But those protests were postponed following Tuesday’s assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian Christian leader. The killing added to Lebanon’s instability by reigniting anger at Syria, which dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades but was forced to withdraw its troops last year over accusations it was behind Hariri’s killing.
Several hundred supporters of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah briefly took to the streets on Thursday night, burning tires and blocking the road to the airport until the Islamic group’s leader ordered them home.
Fearing a meltdown, business leaders called a two-day strike starting Friday to urge the rival leaders to “take national decisions … engage in dialogue and stop making threats of street protests.” Factories, banks and financial institutions closed, though many small shops remained open.
Underlining the atmosphere of fear following Gemayel’s assassination, some Cabinet ministers are taking shelter in the government headquarters in downtown Beirut.
Efforts to break the deadlock, and even the outpouring of grief over the slaying of the young Christian politician, have failed to soften the entrenched positions.