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Lebanon News

Mikati: Travel warnings tied to evacuation fears

Mikati says Assir’s sit-in will soon relocate. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati ruled out Monday a major deterioration in the security situation in the country, saying that a travel warning issued by Saudi Arabia was related to logistics and not politics. He also promised that a sit-in staged by a controversial preacher in Sidon, to protest weapons held by Hezbollah, would soon relocate.

“Ambassadors [of Gulf countries] have repeatedly explained to me that the [issuing of travel warnings] have been made for purely logistical reasons, and are tied to larger evacuation plans,” Mikati told The Daily Star in an exclusive interview.

Mikati, who is expected to embark on a Gulf tour likely to include Saudi Arabia, explained that ambassadors of Gulf countries expressed fears that they might face serious difficulties evacuating their citizens from Lebanon in the event the security situation here degenerates, as they have already lost a major evacuation route in light of the 16-month unrest in Syria.

“The ambassadors informed us that the travel warnings should be considered as a message to Gulf citizens that their evacuation won’t be easy in case something happens,” Mikati said.

He added that the envoys assured him they had no information about major security developments expected to happen in Lebanon.

“Historically, Gulf countries evacuated their citizens through Syria whenever a crisis erupted here,” he said. “Now it is virtually impossible to do it through Syria.”

Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain issued advisories in May, warning their citizens against travel to Lebanon after clashes rocked the north Lebanon city of Tripoli. Saudi Arabia Monday warned its citizens against travel to Lebanon due to the security situation.

Despite the travel warnings issued by Gulf countries and the multitude of security shake-ups in the past couple of months, Mikati said the “resilience and cohesion” so far manifested by the Lebanese was “impressive.”

“Let’s be realistic – we’re part of a region that is going through very difficult times,” Mikati said. “Relatively speaking and in light of all what is happening around us we are doing OK.”

He said the outcomes of June’s National Dialogue sessions, which confirmed the need to keep Lebanon isolated from regional violence, as well as the “immense global support” Lebanon enjoys regarding its dissociation policy regarding events in Syria, were signals that Lebanon was in the safe zone.

“Two or three months ago I had some fears but now I am comfortable, really comfortable [with the situation],” he added, on a day in which he received a telephone call from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who lauded the disassociation policy.

But Mikati also denied that he had had any contact with the Syrian leadership since the uprising in Lebanon’s neighbor erupted in March 2011.

Mikati acknowledged that extraordinary efforts were being exerted to contain security incidents from spiraling out of control, arguing that the use of force was not always advantageous.

“In this country, security is imposed in a rather peculiar fashion, so as to avoid glitches that could lead to disasters,” he said.

Mikati said he favored a calm approach to resolve security incidents, adding that involving the Lebanese Army on every occasion might turn out to be a “risky business.” He compared Lebanon to a ship sailing in a raging storm, saying that if one of the ship’s port holes is broken, the entire vessel would sink. “What if the use of force by the Army breaks one of the port holes?” he asked.

As for the sit-in organized by Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir to pressure Hezbollah to surrender its arms to the military, currently blocking Sidon’s southbound highway, Mikati says contacts were under way to convince Assir to relocate the protest.

Mikati predicted that the sit-in would be dismantled peacefully, just like the one in Tripoli, which demanded the release of Islamist detainees.

“I am counting on ongoing contacts and mediation as well as the wisdom of Sheikh Assir for this matter to be resolved in a calm manner,” he said.

Mikati, who confirmed his intention to run in next year’s parliamentary elections, dismissed reports that his Al-Azm welfare association was arming and funding fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, the site of sectarian violence in recent months.

“We offer medical and social services to the underprivileged and the needy,” he said. “I don’t own weapons, I don’t distribute weapons and I don’t know about weapons,” he added.

As for his decision to pay the bail for 14 Islamists detained for alleged involvement in the 2007 fighting between the Army and an Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist group in north Lebanon, he said they were “declared innocent” by the judiciary.

“I did not exert pressure for their release. The Azm association was approached by the families [of detainees] and we paid the bail as a form of zakat, or charity.”

He said that if the judiciary decides to release another batch of Islamist detainees and indicates that they were not involved in attacks against the Army, his association was willing to pay bail, after studying the financial situation of the detainees.

Tackling the work of his government, Mikati said he will not respond to attacks against him as he did not wish to be dragged into a futile debate but highlighted that his Cabinet was being productive at a “slow but sure pace.”

He announced that 2012 budget – with no increases in taxes – will be sent to Parliament “in the coming days” for ratification, adding that appointments to public posts were being made on weekly basis during Cabinet sessions.

He promised that the appointments of governors, a president of the Higher Judicial Council and a state prosecutor were expected in the next few weeks.

Mikati also downplayed the recent blacklisting by the United States of certain Lebanese banks and bank employees for money laundering and channeling funds to Hezbollah, saying he trusted Lebanon’s banking sector.

“The Central Bank and the owners of Lebanese banks all strongly reject that the reputation of Lebanon’s excellent banking system be stained by individual cases,” he said. “They have my full trust and endorsement.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2012, on page 1.

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