Lebanon News

Berri to meet with Assad in bid to defuse tensions

BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri is scheduled to hold talks Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus in a bid to resolve the Lebanese political crisis as contacts intensified on the eve of a Cabinet session scheduled to tackle the issue of false witnesses.

While Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s coalition and March 8 groups are standing their ground with regard to STL-related controversies, Hariri was scheduled to hold talks with Hizbullah leader Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah’s top political aide Hajj Hassan Khalil as The Daily Star went to press.

Berri’s visit to Syria follows discussions Sunday between Assad and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz in Riyadh, as well as a meeting between Progressive Socialist Party leader Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt and Nasrallah, which reportedly paved the way for Hariri’s meeting with Khalil.

A political source told The Daily Star that the contacts had been in anticipation of Wednesday’s government meeting to avoid any escalation in stances during the session.

Prior to his scheduled meeting with Khalil, Hariri held talks with Berri at Parliament, following the elections of members of parliamentary committees.

Asked to comment on the meeting, Beirut MP Ammar Houri, of the Future Movement, told The Daily Star that discussions had been “friendly and brief.”

Another political source told The Daily Star that Berri was brokering a compromise among Riyadh, Damascus and Beirut, with one of the proposals consisting of freezing the STL’s work until the Justice Council concludes its investigations with regard to false witnesses.

The investigations to be carried out by the Council would pave the way for the Cabinet to file a request with the UN Security Council, asking it to freeze the work of the STL pending the conclusion of the probe by the Lebanese judiciary, the source said.

Asked whether Berri was brokering such a compromise, the speaker’s spokesman Ali Hamdan told The Daily Star that he was unaware of the issue.

But Hamdan added that investigating false witnesses by the Justice Council would “necessarily result in a new course of investigations by the STL due to the uncovering of new information or data concerning those who stood behind witnesses and misled the UN probe.”

Asked to comment on the Future Movement’s position vis-a-vis the suggested compromise, Houri said the circulated proposal reflected the public stance of March 8 forces asking to refer the issue of false witnesses to the Justice Council.

In a statement issued after a meeting, the Future Movement bloc reiterated its position with regard to the issue of false witnesses, saying it could not be tackled prior to the STL indictment.

“Following the release of the indictment, the picture might be clarified and attempts that misled investigations will be differentiated from attempts that did not; then, we can take disciplinary measures against those who sought to twist facts or present misleading information,” the statement said.

“A different course of action is considered as efforts beyond the useful track and will not lead to results,” the statement added.

Houri said the Future Movement adhered to Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar’s report on the legal framework governing the issue of false witnesses.

The report said the Justice Council has no jurisdiction to look into the matter of false witnesses but added that the Lebanese judiciary was entitled to investigate the issue.

Separately, Hamdan said March 8 forces would not object to investigations being carried out by the Lebanese judiciary rather than the Justice Council if State Prosecutor Saeed Mirza and several judicial officials, allegedly in a state of personal animosity with those pressing charges in the case, step down first.”

Commenting on regional efforts to broker a compromise over the STL, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea denied any Saudi efforts to postpone the STL indictment, adding that any intervention by Saudi Arabia in this regard was “out of the question.”

In a televised interview with the BBC, Geagea questioned statements by parties linking the release of the STL indictment to strife among the Lebanese.

“Parties that make such claims are threatening others, saying that in the event an indictment is released, even if it targets Israel, it will spark an explosion in Lebanon. Such statements are unacceptable and irresponsible,” he said.

“The indictment should be addressed with a basket of evidence and information refuting those presented by the indictment,” he added.

The LF leader said US Assistant Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman informed him that Saudi Arabia was not in the process of striking a deal at the expense of STL.

“When I asked him about the situation in Saudi Arabia, he said it was good, which means that the kingdom’s position as we know it is clear and there is no compromise on the STL,” Geagea said in reference to a phone conversation with Feltman during the latter’s presence in Lebanon.

Feltman arrived Sunday from Saudi Arabia and held talks with President Michel Sleiman and Jumblatt before leaving a few hours later to Washington.

 

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