Key Lebanese Leaders Meet for First Time

The Associated Press
Friday, March 9, 2007; 7:21 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In their first direct negotiations in four months, leaders of Lebanon's pro-government and opposition camps met twice in 24 hours and found some convergence of views on ending the country's political crisis.

Saad Hariri, the leader of the pro-government majority in parliament, met Thursday and Friday night with the parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, an opposition party leader who is aligned with Hezbollah, the official National News Agency reported.

The agency gave no details of their Friday night talks, but said they lasted two hours.

After the Thursday night session, Hariri's office issued a statement saying: "The atmosphere of the meeting was positive and frank, and there was agreement on the need to resolve the crisis that Lebanon is going through and achieve a settlement that guarantees a return to normal life.

"A number of converging views emerged as well as a number of points that need more consultation," the statement added.

The meetings came after months of dispute in which politicians traded insults and their supporters clashed in the streets, leading many to fear that the country was returning to the violence of the 1975-90 civil war.

A reconciliation between the two sides could ease sectarian tensions.

Hariri supports U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, while Berri is an ally of Hezbollah, the Shiite guerrilla group backed by Iran and Syria and opposed to Saniora.

Lebanese leaders have been feuding since November, the last time Berri and Hariri met.

The Hezbollah-led opposition has been campaigning with protests and sit-ins since Dec. 1 in downtown Beirut _ just outside the prime minister's office _ to try to force him to resign or share power in a national unity Cabinet that would give the opposition veto power.

Saniora continued to govern, although all five Shiite ministers and a Christian ally left the Cabinet in November and President Emile Lahoud sided with the opposition, declaring the government was no longer constitutional.

The confrontation turned violent in January, with eight people killed in clashes between the two sides. One demonstrator also was killed in December.

In addition to the opposition's demands for a share in the Cabinet of one-third plus one _ to be able to veto key decisions _ Hariri and his supporters have been demanding the opposition endorse an agreement with the United Nations to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

The government has accused the opposition, most of whose factions have close ties to Syria, of seeking to undermine the approval of the tribunal.

Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri's father, was assassinated in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut in February 2005. His supporters blamed Syria, whose army controlled Lebanon then, but Syria denied that.

© 2007 The Associated Press