Syrian and Saudi leaders visit Beirut to defuse tension

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  1. Neil

    Neil Senior Member Senior Member

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    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah are in Beirut for talks with Lebanese leaders.

    They aim to defuse tensions heightened since Syria was forced to withdraw its troops after the 2005 killing of former PM Rafik Hariri.

    They are worried conflict could break out if, as rumoured, a UN tribunal indicts members of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement over the killing.

    It is Mr Assad's first visit to the country since the assassination.

    His visit marks a further development in formal relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which only exchanged embassies for the first time last year.

    On Thursday, the two men - leaders of two of the most influential powers in the region - pledged to work together to help stabilise Lebanon.

    Entente between Syria and Saudi Arabia is seen as crucial to stability in Lebanon.

    Hezbollah is Syria's main ally in Lebanon, while the Saudis are deeply involved with the country's Sunni community and current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the murdered ex-PM.

    Mr Assad and King Abdullah are thought to have been instrumental in ending the five months of deadlock which preceded the formation of Lebanon's unity government - which includes Hezbollah - last November.

    Major stability
    The Syrian and Saudi leaders were scheduled to meet President Michel Suleiman before attending a lunch with members of Lebanon's government.

    Lebanon's relations with Syria have been complicated since the Hariri assassination, the huge anti-Syrian demonstrations that followed, and the end of the 29-year Syrian military presence - all in 2005.

    But things have improved since then, analysts say. Saad Hariri has visited Damascus twice as prime minister for talks with President Assad, setting aside his accusations that Syria was behind his father's death.

    Mr Assad's visit carries that normalisation a step further.

    Tensions have risen in the past week, however, with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah reacting angrily to persistent reports that the Hariri tribunal may indict several members of the Shia Islamist group.

    He made clear that he would not accept such a scenario, accusing the tribunal of being politicised and part of an "Israeli project".

    Should it indeed happen there are fears of sectarian violence between Shias and Hariri's Sunni community, as happened in 2008, says the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

    Prime Minister Hariri, who was at the airport to greet his visitors on Friday morning, said he hoped Friday's visit would lead to "major stability", while a Hezbollah member of parliament described it as "an opportunity to show Arab unity in the face of this plot which aims to destabilise Lebanon and sow sedition".

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-10813301
     
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