News24

Tensions high in Beirut amid talks

2011-01-18 12:24

Beirut - Hezbollah supporters gathered in the streets of Beirut early on Tuesday after a UN tribunal filed indictments in the assassination of a former prime minister, prompting several schools to close as nervous parents pulled their children from class.

Associated Press reporters saw at least four gatherings of up to 30 people each, dressed in black and carrying hand-held radios. One gathering was about 400m from the Grand Serail, the seat of government in downtown Beirut, and security officials closed the roads leading to the building.

Lebanese security officials confirmed the gatherings, which dispersed by late morning and appeared to be a show of force in the hours after a long-awaited indictment was released on Monday evening in the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The indictment was sealed and its contents will likely not become public for weeks. But the court is widely expected to accuse members of Hezbollah of being involved in the killing, something the Shi'ite militant group has insisted it will not accept.

Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a member of Hezbollah's political bureau, said he is not aware of such gatherings.

"I cannot comment," he said.

Denials by Hezbollah

The indictment, confirmed by the international court's headquarters in the Hague, is the latest turn in a deepening political crisis in Lebanon, where Hezbollah toppled the Western-backed government last week in a dispute over the tribunal.

The Iran- and Syria-sponsored group fiercely denies any role in the killing and says the tribunal, jointly funded by UN member states and Lebanon, is a conspiracy by Israel and the United States.

Many fear the crisis could lead to street protests and the kind of violence that has bedevilled this tiny Arab country of 4 million people for years, including a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shi'ites in 2008.

Parents pulled their children from school on Tuesday as word spread of the Hezbollah gatherings.

Education Minister Hassan Mneimneh told Lebanese TV stations that the situation in the capital had "returned to normal" by late morning and that "tomorrow will be a normal school day".

Government collapse

Prime Minister Saad Hariri - the son of the slain leader - has refused Hezbollah's demands to renounce the court, prompting 11 Hezbollah ministers and their allies to resign on Wednesday.

The move brought down the unity government and further polarised the country's rival factions: Hezbollah with its patrons in Syria and Iran on one side, and Hariri's Western-backed bloc on the other, with support by the US and Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, Turkey's foreign minister was travelling to Beirut in a co-ordinated visit with Qatar's prime minister to discuss the political crisis in Lebanon.

Ahmet Davutoglu's trip to Beirut comes a day after consultations with Iran's new acting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Ankara.

The Anatolia news agency says Davutoglu and Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, a member of the gulf emirate's royal family, will meet Lebanon's president, prime minister, parliament speaker and prominent politicians during their visit.