Lebanese hold reconciliation talks in volatile city

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) – Lebanese Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri held talks with an Alawite community leader in a volatile northern city overnight, paving the way for agreement to end four months of sectarian tensions, politicians said on Sunday.

Hariri, the leader of the country’s anti-Syrian majority coalition, met pro-Syrian Ali Eid at the house of north Lebanon Mufti Sheikh Malek Sha’ar to prepare the ground for a reconciliation meeting between Tripoli’s various leaders.

At least 22 people have been killed in Tripoli since June in sectarian fighting linked to Lebanon’s broader political troubles. A separate bomb attack in August in the city killed 15 people, including 10 soldiers.

The fighting in the mostly Sunni city has pitted Alawite factions against Sunni gunmen. Eid’s main Alawite group has close links to Syria, which is headed by Alawite President Bashar al-Assad.

Hariri’s followers are the main Sunni political force in Tripoli.

The violence raised fears both locally and abroad that al Qaeda-linked groups could use the tension to beef up their presence in the area or that it could be used by Syria as an excuse to send its forces back to Lebanon.

Syria ended three decades of military presence in Lebanon under international pressure in 2005 after the assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.

Mufti Sha’ar told reporters after the pre-dawn meeting that Hariri and Eid agreed to end all visible armed presence in Tripoli and to hand its security to the Lebanese army.

“The meeting removed all the illusions and there was total agreement,” Sha’ar said, adding he hoped that a wider reconciliation meeting would be held in the city before the end of the current Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“I’m ready to throw all my political weight behind any reconciliation effort and (to give) my financial, moral or political support to… consolidating civil peace in this country,” Hariri said.

Beirut-based Hariri has been in Tripoli since Friday in what his aides said was a drive to end the violence and secure aid to the poor areas of the city. Hariri is a billionaire businessman who has several social welfare and charity organizations.

Syria’s Assad warned on Thursday that Lebanon was still in a fragile state and said he was worried about foreign-backed “extremist forces” fomenting instability in Tripoli. His comments have drawn sharp rebukes from Hariri and his allies.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently warned of foreign meddling in Tripoli which was fuelling tensions there.

Tensions in Tripoli have overshadowed Lebanon’s return to political stability after Qatar mediated in May an end to an 18-month power struggle between the anti-Syrian coalition led by Hariri and the pro-Syrian alliance, led by Shi’ite Hezbollah.

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