By-elections in August to replace slain MPs

BEIRUT (AFP) — The Lebanese government has set August 5 for by-elections to replace two assassinated MPs, despite opposition from the country’s pro-Syrian president, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said Saturday.“The government has decided to organise partial legislative elections on August 5 for the two seats left vacant by the assassination of the deputy for Beirut, Walid Eido, and the deputy for Metn, Pierre Gemayel,” he said.

“This decision is final and will be applied,” he added, in reference to President Emile Lahoud’s promise not to sign any decree ordering by-elections.

Industry Minister Gemayel was murdered in November and Eido was killed on Wednesday in a car bombing in Beirut. Members of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian majority have blamed Syria for the assassinations, a charge Damascus denies.

Eido was the 12th prominent figure and the fifth member of the parliamentary majority to have been killed in a string of attacks mostly targeting anti-Syrian journalists and politicians in the past two years.

A third MP belonging to the anti-Syrian majority, Gebrane Tueni, was assassinated in December 2005. In that case, a by-election was held, and he was succeeded by his father, Ghassan, who ran unopposed.

Lahoud, who was reelected to office in 2004 after then power-broker Syria forced a constitutional amendment through parliament, insists the government is illegitimate and has no right to order elections.

“As guarantor of the constitution, I warn this illegitimate government. It does not have the right to exploit the assassination of deputy Eido to violate the constitution,” the president said in a statement Friday.

“The only solution lies in forming a unity government.” Lebanon has been politically paralysed since November, when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet charging that it was riding roughshod over the power-sharing arrangements in force since the 1975-90 civil war.

Pro-Syrian Parliament speaker Nabih Berri has since refused to convene MPs to ratify government legislation, including proposals for an international court to try suspects in the 2005 murder of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The UN Security Council has since adopted a resolution imposing the court.

The parliamentary majority accuses Syria of Hariri’s murder, as well as those of the three MPs, something Damascus denies.

It argues that Syria is seeking to “liquidate” its absolute majority, which would prevent anti-Damascus forces from having the votes necessary to elect a successor to Lahoud, which is due to take place this autumn.

With Eido’s death, the ruling majority has seen its margin dropped to only five seats in the 126-member parliament.

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