Pressure mounts on Syria as Lebanon mourns

AS LEBANON buried former prime minister Rafik Al Hariri last Wednesday, international pressure mounted on Syria to ease its grip over the country. The Sunni Muslim billionaire’s death in a car bomb attack last Monday has revived memories of the 1975-90 civil war and put Lebanon’s troubled ties with its powerful neighbour back in the spotlight.

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By  Rhys Jones Published  February 20, 2005

AS LEBANON buried former prime minister Rafik Al Hariri last Wednesday, international pressure mounted on Syria to ease its grip over the country. The Sunni Muslim billionaire’s death in a car bomb attack last Monday has revived memories of the 1975-90 civil war and put Lebanon’s troubled ties with its powerful neighbour back in the spotlight. President Bush’s administration last week recalled its ambassador to Damascus for urgent consultations to show its anger at Syria’s military presence and political power-broking role in Lebanon. Furthermore, US officials said they were considering new sanctions on Syria because of its refusal to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon and Washington’s belief that Damascus allows Palestinian militants and Iraqi insurgents operate on its soil. “The Syrian government is unfortunately on a path right now where relations are not improving, but are worsening,” said Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state. “We will continue to consider what other options are at our disposal. We would hope that the Syrian government would take the opportunity of this signal from the United States to review where we are in the relationship and to try to put our relations on a better path,” she added. The White House said it was too early to tell who assassinated Hariri, 60, while the Syrian government publicly condemned the fatal attack. Syrian vice-president Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who visited Hariri’s home to pay condolences, said: “This crime targeted the Lebanese dream, Lebanese security and Lebanese peace.” Lebanese opposition figures, however, did not hesitate to point an accusing finger at Damascus, amid widespread fears the attack could signal a return to the violence of the country’s civil war years. “This [Lebanese] regime is backed by the Syrians. This is the regime of terrorists and terrorism that was able yesterday to wipe out Rafik Al Hariri,” said Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader after presenting his condolences to Hariri’s family in Beirut. “I charge the Lebanese-Syrian police regime with the responsibility for Hariri’s death,” he added. The UN Security Council asked secretary-general Kofi Annan to urgently look into the killing, a measure the US hopes will lead to further action by the world body. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters took to the streets in the northern Sunni port city of Tripoli and hundreds demonstrated in Hariri’s hometown of Sidon, shouting slogans blaming Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for his death. A crowd of mourners also assaulted Syrian workers with sticks and stones near a house belonging to Hariri’s brother in Sidon, injuring five labourers. Hariri, who died after a bomb exploded near his motorcade killing at least 15 people and injuring about 120 others came into frequent conflict with Damascus throughout his political career. Syria refused to tolerate the autonomy of Lebanon or its political class and Hariri’s assassination last week was final confirmation of that. Former prime minister Hariri, who successfully rebuilt Beirut, planned a political comeback at the head of a unified opposition in parliamentary elections due in May. He resigned as prime minister in October after falling out with Syria over its role in extending the term of his political rival, president Emile Lahoud. His hand was strengthened by United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, which demands that Syria cease interfering in Lebanon and withdraw its remaining 14,000 troops. Shops and offices shut for three days of official mourning and the Lebanese army went on alert before Hariri’s funeral at a mosque in central Beirut, once a battlefield turned into an upper-class area by the former premier. A previously unknown Islamist group said it had carried out a suicide attack against Hariri, who also holds Saudi citizenship, because he supported the Saudi royal family. The attack follows growing political tensions in Lebanon as a result of campaigning for parliamentary elections in May that are widely seen as a test of Syria’s influence. In spite of last week’s tragedy, politicians in Lebanon insist that elections will take place as planned.“The elections will take place on schedule,” said Suleiman Franjieh, Lebanon’s interior minister. See our special report, Peace Explodes, in the Features section of our website, or buy Arabian Business, on sale from February 20, 2005.

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