BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman, who is on a historic visit to African states, has stressed the importance of Lebanon’s neutrality vis-a-vis the Syria crisis, saying that the country must not be a route for arms smuggling or a base to train fighters.
“Lebanon must not be a route for weapons or a base for training fighters, no matter which side they are on,” Sleiman told the Lebanese community in Senegal late Wednesday.
“Neutrality is useful for Lebanon and Syria. The purpose of that is to overcome the Syria crisis without Lebanon being sucked into a crisis,” he added at the welcome reception in his honor.
The Lebanese president expressed hope that calm would prevail in Syria and that a U.N.-brokered political solution that was binding on all parties would be reached.
Turning to the issue of parliamentary elections in Lebanon, Sleiman underlined the importance of reaching a new law that “reflects Lebanon’s makeup and carries within it the spirit of the Taif [Accord]; and not a return to sectarian laws.”
He was referring to the so-called Orthodox Gathering proposal which allows each sect to elect its own lawmakers under a system of proportional representation.
The president said that in the event lawmakers failed to draft an electoral law in accordance with the Taif Accord, “I hope that [Lebanese] expatriates won’t vote under a sectarian-based law.”
He also called for lowering the voting age to 18, adding that elections should be mandatory for citizens.
Sleiman acknowledged that the large Lebanese expatriate community in West Africa faces an unfair competition at the economic level.
Nevertheless, "I encourage you to continue to work honorably without competing with Senegalese,” he said, while reminding them that they, too, have duties toward their nation.
Sleiman also hailed recent efforts by the Lebanese government following the kidnapping in Nigeria of two Lebanese citizens.
“We have intervened, held contacts with local and international sides, dispatched delegations and we need to do more than that,” he said.
Ansaru, the militant Islamist group that kidnapped the Lebanese from a Lebanese-Nigerian construction company compound last month, announced Saturday it had killed all seven abducted foreigners.
While the governments of Britain, Greece and Italy said their citizens had likely been killed, Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that the two Lebanese did not appear to be among the executed hostages featured in a video released by the group.
A source from Baabda Palace told The Daily Star that Sleiman would be following up on the issue with the Nigerian government but did not elaborate.
Sleiman’s weeklong visit to West Africa, the first for a Lebanese president, will place emphasis on improving business ties with Lebanon.
Following the reception, Sleiman, his wife and the accompanying delegation toured Gorée Island which lies off the coast of Senegal.
Then they visited Maison des Esclaves, or The House of Slaves, a museum and memorial of the Atlantic slave trade on the tiny Goree Island.
Dakar’s cultural minister acted as their guide, providing historical background.
The head of the museum also offered Sleiman a certificate of appreciation.
Sleiman arrived in the capital of Senegal Tuesday night at the head of a 59-member delegation.
The Lebanese president will head to Ivory Coast Thursday on the second leg of his West Africa trip which will also take him to Nigeria and Ghana.