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Sleiman: Lebanon must not be route for arms

Ivory Coast's president Alassane Ouattara (r) and Lebanon counterpart Michel Sleiman (L) greet supporters during president Sleiman's welcoming ceremony at Abidjan airport on March 14,2013. (AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO)

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 to Syria 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 is to overcome the Syria crisis without Lebanon being sucked into a crisis,” he added at the reception in his honor in the Senegalese capital.

Sleiman 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.

Regarding parliamentary polls 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 plan, which allows each sect to elect its own MPs under a system of proportional representation.

Sleiman said that in the event lawmakers failed to draft a 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 faced 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, had duties toward their nation.

Sleiman said Lebanese authorities were following up on 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 of the 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 Abuja but did not elaborate.

Before his departure, Sleiman, his wife and the accompanying delegation toured a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade on Gorée Island off Senegal.

Sleiman Thursday arrived in Ivory Coast, where he met with a Lebanese-Ivorian businessmen’s forum.

He told his hosts that while global economic conditions had wreaked havoc in a range of countries, “the African continent fortunately appeared to be immune to that storm and its economies maintained soaring growth.”

He added that Lebanon had managed to cope with economic difficulties resulting from instability in the region.

“Even though we are still today suffering from present difficulties in a number of sectors because of the turbulent situation in the region and political polarization, the Lebanese economy has strongly shown its ability to adapt, thus allowing it to return to higher growth rates as soon as the crises ends,” Sleiman said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 15, 2013, on page 3.

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