Hezbollah forces Lebanon govt collapse
Beirut - Lebanon's unity government collapsed on Wednesday after the powerful Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the cabinet over a UN probe into the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told a press conference that 10 ministers had tendered their resignations because of a long-running dispute with Prime Minister Saad Hariri - son of the slain leader - over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
An 11th minister close to President Michel Sleiman also quit the 30-member cabinet, thus providing the minimum number of resignations needed to topple the government.
The announcement by Bassil, a member of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement close to Hezbollah, came just as Hariri was holding talks in Washington with US President Barack Obama on the crisis.
Hariri made no comment after the talks and headed to Paris where he was to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday, his office said.
The Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah and its allies have for months been pressing Hariri to disavow the STL on the grounds that it is part of a US-Israeli plot.
Hezbollah's camp, which is backed by Iran and Syria, on Tuesday had given the Western-backed Hariri until Wednesday to convene a cabinet meeting on the tribunal.
Paralyse the state
According to unconfirmed press reports, the STL is poised to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination, a scenario the militant party vehemently rejects.
Environment Minister Mohammad Rahhal, who is close to Hariri, told AFP Hezbollah's decision to quit the government was aimed at paralysing the state and forcing the premier to reject the tribunal.
"They think that by piling the pressure on him, Hariri will bend but they are mistaken," Rahhal said.
The Sunni premier has held talks in recent days in New York with Saudi King Abdullah, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sarkozy and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the crisis.
A senior US official said on Wednesday before the government collapse that Clinton, who is on a Gulf tour, had held talks with Arab leaders, France "and others" to seek a consensus over the UN-backed probe.
"There will be a certain urgency to the Lebanon question right now," the official said, but added that Hezbollah appeared intent on bringing down the government by constitutional means rather than by taking matters to the street.
Mustapha Alloush, a senior member of Hariri's Future Movement, said Hezbollah and its allies had intentionally timed the announcement of the government collapse to coincide with the premier's meeting with Obama.
"They wanted Hariri to enter the meeting with the US president as an ex-premier or as head of a caretaker government," Alloush told AFP. "But the real goal is to deal a moral blow to the United States."
On the brink
Syria and Saudi Arabia have for months been attempting to mediate the crisis but their efforts have failed, with rival Lebanese camps accusing each other of blocking attempts at a compromise.
"Saad Hariri was on the brink of making a major concession as concerns the tribunal but occult forces prevented him from doing so," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a former ally of Hariri, told AFP without elaborating.
The stand-off between Hariri's camp and Hezbollah had paralysed the government for months and sparked concerns of sectarian violence similar to that which brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.
Bassil told AFP that it was now up to the president to begin consultations on forming a new government as soon as possible.
"We're taking it step by step, but with today's decision, we spared Lebanon more strife," he said.
Wednesday's government collapse echoed a similar crisis in 2006 that paralysed the country for 18 months, bringing it to the brink of civil war.