Syrian, Saudi leaders head to Beirut to ease tensions

Syrian, Saudi leaders head to Beirut to ease tensions

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah were to head to Beirut on Friday for talks with various Lebanese factions and President Michel Suleiman, in an effort to ease rising tensions in the city, DPA reported.

The summit sees al-Assad on his first visit to Beirut since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri. No Saudi monarch has touched down in the country since 1957.

Streets in the capital were adorned with the countries' flags and huge portraits of the two foreign leaders, both power brokers in the Mediterranean state.

The very visit of the two brought "considerable stability to the country after the regional tensions," Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain leader and current Lebanese premier, said in a statement ahead of their arrival.

Al-Assad and Abdullah met Thursday in Damascus. Shortly beforehand, the king also sat for an hour with Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak, in the first stop of his regional tour.

The Syrian and Saudi leaders had agreed to "support the process of consensus that Lebanon has witnessed since the formation of a national unity government" in 2008, said a Syrian presidential statement after the meet with the king.

What is being dubbed in Beirut as a "mini-summit" is aimed at "containing any possible future escalation between rival factions in Lebanon," an official in the capital said, requesting anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the visit.

The death of Hariri and a related ongoing investigation by a United Nations special tribunal continue to create sectarian rifts in the capital between the two main rival blocs.

Though some Lebanese groups have in the past blamed Damascus for the 2005 death of Hariri, Assad is seen as a leader with influence over the more militant political factions in Beirut.

Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite movement, has said it would reject any attempt to indict its members in relation to the 2005 assassination of Hariri, after reports circulated that some party figures could end up being charged with involvement.

"Lebanon is neither an American colony nor a military base that Washington controls according to its interests with Israel," Hezbollah said before the talks in Beirut got under way, after accusing the tribunal of having biased interests.

Saad al-Hariri has visited Damascus several times in recent years for talks with the Syrian president, whose troops withdrew from the neighbouring country in 2005, after the assassination.

Abdullah, a backer of the Western-leaning Lebanese government, has also seen his country's previously terse ties with Damascus warm recently. The king's last trip to Lebanon, in 2002, had been during his time as crown prince, though Riyadh keeps a close watch on the country.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who will also be in Lebanon over the weekend, is said to be keen, along with Abdullah and now Assad, to ensure stability in Beirut.

The so-called Doha Agreement was reached in 2008 by the rival Lebanese factions in Qatar, ending 18 months of political deadlock in the country and giving it a stable cabinet for the first time in years.

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