France urges consensus on Lebanon president

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Tuesday launched a fresh bid to break a political impasse in Lebanon that is threatening to derail the election of a president by a November 23 deadline.His visit, the fifth in six months, comes amid a flurry of diplomatic initiatives to nudge Lebanon’s pro- and anti-Syrian camps to agree on a consensus candidate to replace the current head of state Emile Lahoud, whose mandate runs out on November 24.

After talks in Beirut, Kouchner said he was cautiously optimistic about chances to end the deadlock and hoped to return to Lebanon next Monday after visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories over the weekend.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri has already called off three times a special session for MPs to elect a successor to Lahoud, and there are fears a last-ditch parliament session set for November 21 could also end in failure.

Kouchner met on Tuesday with Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the influential leader of the Maronite Christian community from which Lebanon’s president is traditionally drawn. He also held talks with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Berri and a number of other politicians. He was due to meet with Sfeir later the same day.

Kouchner told reporters after his first meeting with the patriarch that France was “deeply committed” to helping Lebanon break its political deadlock. “I have come to offer his beatitude France’s support,” he said. “I have a slight leaning, a very slight leaning towards being optimistic,” he said.

US President George W. Bush telephoned Siniora on Monday to offer his backing for the election of a president free from interference by neighbouring Syria. Italy’s foreign minister and the Arab League chief were also expected in Beirut later this week to try to break the impasse, which marks the country’s worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The intense diplomatic activity comes as tension between the Western-backed ruling majority and the Hizbollah-led opposition mount with each side accusing the other of treachery.

Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah raised the stakes at the weekend by describing Siniora’s government as a bunch of “thieves and murderers” and urging Lahoud to take the necessary measures if no agreement is reached on his successor.

Members of the ruling coalition blasted his comments as an attempt to torpedo efforts towards a compromise and force the formation of a parallel government as was the case at the end of the civil war when two competing administrations battled it out.

Lebanon’s president is elected by MPs rather than by popular suffrage. A two-thirds majority is required for a candidate to be elected by parliament in a first round of voting. In the event of a second round, an absolute majority suffices.

The parliamentary majority, with 68 MPs in the 127-seat house, has threatened to go ahead on its own with a presidential vote if no consensus candidate is found. Lahoud for his part has threatened to appoint an interim military government if no agreement is struck, raising fears of civil conflict.

Canadian named to

head Hariri probe

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has nominated Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare to lead the UN investigation into the 2005 killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

In a letter to the UN Security Council made public on Tuesday, Ban said he planned to appoint Bellemare, a former deputy attorney General of Canada, to succeed Belgium’s Serge Brammertz as the next commissioner in the probe.

Hariri and 22 others died in a February 2005 Beirut car bomb blast that interim UN findings have linked to Syrian and Lebanese security officials. Syria has denied involvement but the outcry forced it to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

The UN team is investigating Hariri’s killing as well as other assassinations and bombings of the past three years that reflect Lebanon’s protracted conflict between the anti-Syrian government coalition and the opposition.

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