BEIRUT: The Lebanese government Friday approved a proposal to lower phone call rates and Internet costs in the country during a Cabinet session that lasted over six hours.
The Cabinet also referred a plan on establishing camps for Syrian refugees to the Higher Defense Council and will discuss the topic in upcoming sessions.
The government also made further civil service appointments, a process that had been stalled under several past governments.
The cellphone rates plan was opposed by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
The Higher Defense Council will address the plan to set up camps for Syrian refugees at a meeting in Baabda Palace Sunday. The proposal was not put to a vote before the Cabinet.
The Kataeb Party’s plan is expected to establish refugee camps on the border with Syria in order to regulate some 1,100 illegal tents scattered across the country.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there are over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon either registered or awaiting registration. Officials say the number is much higher, in addition to the presence of Palestinian refugees who have also escaped the crisis in Syria.
A dispute occurred during the session over the appointment of Laure Sleiman, the general director of the state-run National News Agency, as a full-time employee. Most NNA employees are contract workers.
Hezbollah, Amal and Free Patriotic Movement ministers opposed the move, saying some 500 NNA staff ought to be made full-timers.
The Cabinet also appointed Faisal Shatila as new chief for the board of directors of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, which has been ailing under the weight of mismanagement and lack of funds.
It renewed the term of Mouein Hamzeh as head of the board of directors for the National Institute for Scientific Research and appointed Yasser Zibyan as director-general of the General Institution for Consumer Markets. Yahya Khamis was made the director-general of the State Employees Co-op.
Following the session, Environment Minister Mohammed Machnouk said Cabinet also discussed solid waste management.
The government approved Telecoms Minister Boutros Harb’s decision to end the registration of mobile devices’ IMEI codes.
Every mobile device has a unique International Mobile Station Equipment Identity code, which is commonly used by cell networks to identify valid devices and can be used to block stolen phones.
Harb canceled the registration but the move was opposed by importers, who argue that the action would increase smuggling of mobile phones and facilitate terrorism. Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil opposed Harb’s move, saying its financial repercussions were not well-studied.
After the session, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud had approved Italy’s request to extradite Marcello Dell’Utr, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s senior aide, arrested in Lebanon last month over mafia connections.
Meanwhile, there appeared to be little advancement toward finding a presidential candidate who could bridge the divide between the March 8 and 14 political blocs.
A senior Hezbollah official said the party would not attend a voting session unless politicians agreed beforehand on a consensus candidate.
“If there is consensus on a president, one who is not a challenging figure and one who is acceptable to all Lebanese, we will go to Parliament,” said Ibrahim Sayyed, the head of Hezbollah’s political council, after heading a delegation that met with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.
After the Hezbollah delegation left Bkirki, Rai held talks with Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri.
Assiri said the presidential polls in Lebanon were the responsibility of the country’s Christians and reiterated that Riyadh backed Lebanese accord.
Following the talks, the Saudi envoy praised Rai’s efforts to ensure that the presidential election in held within constitutional deadlines.
President Michel Sleiman Friday also waded into the controversy over the presidential election, calling on Parliament to elect a new head of state to avoid the perils of a vacuum.
Parliament “should work in line with the Constitution and the law to carry out the presidential election and avoid the dangers and risks that may arise due to failure to elect a president before May 25,” Sleiman said in a letter addressed to the assembly.
Parliament failed for a fourth time this week to hold a second round of voting for a new president. After no candidate managed to achieve the required two-thirds majority in the first round of voting, many March 8 MPs have boycotted the last four attempts, thwarting quorum.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned Thursday’s session until May 22. Friday morning, Berri was quoted as saying that the March 8 MPs had assured him they would attend the next session, though without any promise to cast votes.
Presidential hopeful Samir Geagea, who received 48 votes in the first round of voting, left Beirut Friday for a tour of European and Arab states, holding talks with French and Saudi officials as well as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a political source said.