News & Current Affairs

August 14, 2008

Lebanon chief mends ties in Syria

Lebanon chief mends ties in Syria

The Lebanese and Syrian presidents have been holding talks in Damascus, where they formally confirmed a move to establish full diplomatic relations.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman was given a red-carpet welcome by President Bashar al-Assad, the first such visit after a turbulent three years.

Tension has been high since the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Many Lebanese blame Damascus for the killing, but it denies involvement.

The two leaders were meeting in the Syrian capital a month after a summit in Paris, where they agreed to establish diplomatic ties and open embassies.

“The two presidents… have instructed their foreign ministers to take the necessary steps in this regard, starting from today,” said Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Assad.

The Arab neighbours are set to normalise relations for the first time since the Arab neighbours gained independence from France in the 1940s.

Hours before Mr Suleiman flew to Damascus for the two-day visit, a bomb exploded in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, the scene of fierce street fighting between pro- and anti-Syria supporters since May.

Lebanon’s pro-Syrian parliament speaker Nabih Berri said the timing of the attack was meant “to prevent the improvement of Lebanese-Syrian relations”.

Syria’s foreign ministry called the attack a “criminal act” and voiced support for Lebanon “in the face of all those who are manipulating its security and stability”.

Tough issues

The BBC’s Bethany Bell in Damascus says despite progress in relations between the two nations, potential stumbling blocks remain – not least over the international tribunal into the death of Mr Hariri.

Past international investigators said Syrian intelligence and its Lebanese associates had played a role, although the report of the latest prosecutor – Daniel Bellemare of Canada – spoke of a criminal network without saying whether it had political motives.

Syrian officials have consistently and strenuously denied any Syrian role.

Syria kept a large military and intelligence presence in Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1990, but it was forced to withdraw after the Hariri assassination because of massive public pressure in Lebanon with strong international support.

Settling relations with Syria is a top priority for the new government in Lebanon.

The unity coalition was formed after the Qatari-mediated Doha accord which ended months of deadlock and bouts of violence between pro-Syria factions and supporters of the Western-backed government.

The Doha accord also allowed the installation of former army chief Mr Suleiman as president, a candidate deemed acceptable on both sides of the political divide.

Other issues for discussion in Damascus are likely to be demarcating the mountainous Lebanon-Syria border and determining the fate of Lebanese detainees in Syria.

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August 13, 2008

Lebanese city rocked by bus bomb

Lebanese city rocked by bus bomb

At least 11 people have been killed by a blast in the center of the Lebanese city of Tripoli, the military says.

Security officials said a bomb went off close to a bus whose passengers included a number of off-duty soldiers.

The port city has been the scene of sectarian fighting in recent months in which more than 20 people have died.

The attack comes a day after the new national unity government won a vote of confidence and as President Michel Suleiman was due to travel to Syria.

The hands of the criminals have hit in Tripoli against innocent soldiers and civilians
Tareq Mitri, Information Minister

No-one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which also wounded at least 30 people.Some reports put the number of dead at 18.

Nine of those killed were reported to be soldiers who had been travelling on the bus. The army has said it believes it was directly targeted by the attack.

Mr Suleiman described the explosion as “a terrorist act”.

“The army and security forces will not be terrorised by attacks and crimes that target it and civil society, and the history of the army attests to that”, he said in a statement.

Syria’s foreign ministry said it “staunchly denounced the criminal attack that killed many innocent civilians”.

‘Many interpretations’

Lebanese Red Cross volunteers help a wounded man in Tripoli (13/08/2008)

Reports say at least 30 people were injured by the blast

Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri told reporters in Beirut that an investigation was taking place but he did not speculate on who had been behind the attack.”The investigation has begun and there are many interpretations, political interpretations”

Mr Mitri said the government would “make every effort” to support the people of Tripoli.

“The hands of the criminals have hit in Tripoli against innocent soldiers and civilians”, he said.

“Once again, they want our country to be an arena for settling scores and battling for influence.”

Correspondents said it appeared the bomb was intended to disrupt the groundbreaking presidential visit, which was hoped to patch up years of stormy relations between the two neighbours.

The bomb went off in Masarif Street in Tripoli’s busy commercial district.

TV footage showed the surrounding area spattered with blood and covered in broken glass. The strength of the explosion blew debris and body parts onto nearby roofs.

Troubled city

Lebanon

In recent months, Tripoli has seen a series of clashes between the city’s majority Sunni Muslim community, who mainly support the anti-Syrian movement, and members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, linked to the powerful political and militant group Hezbollah.Mr Suleiman, the president, was due to travel to Syria on Wednesday for talks with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad.

The BBC’s Bethany Bell, in Damascus, says his visit marks a gradual thaw in relations between the two countries, which have been strained since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

They planned to discuss demarcating their shared border and setting up diplomatic relations for the first time since independence in the 1940s.

Many Lebanese blame Syria for the Hariri killing, but Damascus has consistently denied any involvement.

Tuesday’s vote gave the formal go-ahead for a government which brings together the anti-Syrian bloc, backed by Western powers and Sunni-led Arab governments, and former opposition groups led by Hezbollah and backed by Syria and Iran.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the bombing “will not affect the launching of our government”.


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