BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – Lebanon’s top rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders held a long-awaited meeting, the two sides’ reported Monday, as part of efforts to defuse sectarian tensions in the country.
The landmark meeting Sunday night between pro-Western parliament majority leader Saad Hariri and the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was the first face-to-face encounter between them since the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, when all Lebanese rallied behind the Iranian-backed militant Shiite group.
Long-simmering tensions between Hariri’s Sunni supporters and Nasrallah’s Shiite militants broke out into street fighting in Beirut in May that killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.
An Arab-brokered deal, signed by rival factions in Doha, Qatar, in May, ended that crisis — described as Lebanon’s worst since the end of the 1975-90 civil war — and helped install a national unity government in which Hezbollah and its opposition allies gained a veto power on major Cabinet decisions.
Reconciliation efforts followed, and Sunday’s meeting came as part of that push on Lebanon’s new political landscape.
During the meeting, Hariri and Nasrallah both emphasized the need for “national unity and civil peace,” pledging to prevent new sectarian clashes between their supporters, according to both sides’ television stations. Footage showed Hariri and Nasrallah smiling. But neither Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television nor Future Television, owned by the Hariri family, said where the meeting took place.
Since the 2006 war between his group and Israel, Nasrallah has rarely appeared in public and has been in hiding because of Hezbollah fears of an assassination by Israel.
A statement issued after the meeting said the two stressed the need to “strengthen dialogue … in order to ward off strife, regardless of political differences” between them.