Rice steps up pressure on Hizbullah

Solana arrives in Beirut with hopes to bolster PM Saniora's gov't.

October 28, 2006 01:09
4 minute read.
Rice steps up pressure on Hizbullah

nasrallah good 298.88 ap. (photo credit: AP [file])

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped up international pressure on Hizbullah to disarm, saying in a television interview aired Friday that the guerrilla group must surrender its weapons if it wants to remain part of Lebanon's political process. Meanwhile, the European Union's foreign policy chief holds talks Saturday with top Lebanese political leaders in an effort to bolster support for Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's embattled government. Rice urged Hizbullah to lay down its arms according to the cease-fire that ended its 34-day war with Israel last summer, and choose between being a militant group and a legitimate political organization. Hizbullah is under heavy international pressure to surrender its weapons, but the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group - which holds 11 seats in the Lebanese parliament and two spots in the Cabinet -has refused to disarm. "If Hizbullah wants to be in politics...Hizbullah should be disarmed. You cannot have one foot in terror and the use of violence and the other foot in politics. It just doesn't work that way," Rice said in an interview with the privately-owned Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. "Hizbullah has to decide whether it's going to maintain its terrorist wing and remain a terrorist organization or whether it's going to...be part the political process," she said. The interview was taped at Rice's office in Washington, and conducted by May Chidiac, a Lebanese journalist who lost an arm and a leg in car bombing in Lebanon in September 2005. The US government has labeled Hizbullah a terrorist organization and blames it for the deaths of 241 US Marines in the bombing of their Beirut barracks in 1983, as well as for two attacks on the US embassy in Beirut and the 1985 TWA hijacking that killed an American serviceman on board. Hizbullah has repeatedly denied such accusations and says it now opposes terrorism. Rice also urged the Lebanese government to end what it called Hizbullah's "state within a state" and prevent weapons from reaching the terror group. "I'm counting on Lebanon to live up to its obligations, and I'm counting on Lebanon to want to evolve to a normal state," Rice told the satellite channel. "And a normal state has an army and police that answer to the state, not to a state within a state." The UN cease-fire resolution that ended the Hizbullah-Israel war on Aug. 14 called for the Lebanese army to deploy alongside international peacekeepers in Hizbullah strongholds across south Lebanon. Some 16,000 Lebanese troops have fanned out across the region, including along the border with Israel, for the first time in decades. The two forces are tasked with establishing a Hizbullah-free buffer zone stretching some 30 kilometers north of the Israeli border. Rice also warned that as Lebanon tries to rebuild, some people might try to destabilize its Western-backed government. "We've heard that there are people who would like to intimidate or assassinate again," she said, referring to the 2005 assassinations of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other anti-Syrian politicians. She did not elaborate. Asked if Syria was trying to destabilize Lebanon following its withdrawal last year, Rice said: "It's not any great secret that there are concerns about what Syria, which once occupied the country, might try and do through continuing contacts in the country. But I don't want accuse any one place. I just want to make very clear that the international community believes there should be no foreign intimidation of the Lebanese people." Javier Solana, the EU's top diplomat, is on a six-day swing through the Middle East to examine prospects for restarting stalled Israel-Palestinian peace talks and for stabilizing Lebanon in the wake of last summer's Israel-Hizbullah war. The one-day visit to Beirut was to send a strong message to Syria and its Lebanese allies that Europe, which is providing the bulk of a 7,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, wants to keep Saniora's moderate government in office. "We have real and important responsibilities in Lebanon," Solana said in Israel before heading to Lebanon. Behind closed doors EU officials were expected to voice concern over growing tensions between rival Lebanese factions, which threaten Saniora's fragile coalition. Arriving late Friday in Beirut, Solana met with Lebanon's influential Maronite Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir. On Saturday Solana will confer with parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh as well as Saniora. Notably absent from Solana's agenda is pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Solana will also meet with Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini, leader of the UN peacekeeping force, to get an assesment on the UN mission in southern Lebanon and the UN force's relationship with the Israelis. The EU foreign policy chief will round up his Lebanon visit by touring pro-Hizbullah neighborhoods of south Beirut which were pounded by Israeli airstrikes last summer. Afterward, he will travel on to Amman, Jordan and Cairo, Egypt. Tensions between rival political groups have risen in recent weeks, with Beirut witnessing a series of minor attacks, including a grenade fired from a rifle at a downtown building that houses a dance club. Solana has welcomed Berri's initiative to launch talks between factions in Lebanon, both pro- and anti-Syrian, Christian, and Muslim.

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