Mediators set deadline for rival Lebanese factions

Qatari hosts present factions with two offers in crisis talks; content of offers not revealed; mediators give 24 hour deadline.

Arab mediators on Tuesday gave rival Lebanese factions holding crisis talks in Qatar a deadline of another day, and two different proposals on how to break their country's 18-month political deadlock. A Qatari official hosting the Lebanese, minister of state for foreign affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmoud, said the proposals were the "best solutions" the mediators came up with to resolve Lebanon's crisis. Four days of talks in Doha have focused on two key issues - a national unity government and a new electoral law - which would also lead to the election of a new Lebanese president. Mahmoud would not reveal the proposals' content but in explaining the deadline, said it was given because "one of the sides requested more time." Doha talks follow an Arab mediated deal that got Lebanese camps to end a week of violence, worst since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, and agree to hold negotiations on overcoming the crisis that has paralyzed the country. The crisis dissolved into violence May 7, with clashes between pro-government groups and the Hezbollah-led opposition raging in the streets of Muslim west Beirut, the central mountains and the north. At least 67 people died. An agreement in Doha is meant to lead to the election of compromise presidential candidate, Gen. Michel Suleiman, commander of the army. Lebanon has had no president since pro-Syria Emile Lahoud's term ended in November. Since the start of the talks, the Hizbullah-led opposition has been adamant the solution must be a package deal, including both the composition of the national unity government and the wording of the new election law, before the camps return to Beirut, where Suleiman's election would follow in parliament. The legislation is significant because it will determine how the sides distribute power in the capital and would directly influence the outcome of next parliament elections in 2009. By giving the two sides more time, the Qatari hosts also may be seeking to consult with the Saudi leadership, which wields influence over Lebanon's Western-backed parliament majority, while the Lebanese opposition is allied with Iran and Syria. Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani was in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, to attend a summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. On Monday, Saudi Information Minister Iyad Madani, said the Lebanese meeting in Doha should not give in to "non-Arab schemes" for Lebanon _ a veiled reference to the Shiite Hezbollah group and Tehran. Madani said the solution to the Lebanese crisis should "guarantee the independence of Lebanon from any foreign domination." After the Qatari announcement, Armenian Christian opposition legislator Hagob Pakradounian told Lebanese private LBC television that his side was "insisting on a solution" but hoped that if it wasn't achieved, the deadline would "be extended, so that we don't go back" without one. Another opposition lawmaker, Ali Hassan Khalil, told the private Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV that the election law was still a "sticking point" between the sides. "Our decision is that we are not to leave Doha before we reach an agreement," Hizbullah legislator Hussein Haj Hassan said the sticking point came up when the government side, which holds only a slim parliament majority, tried to draft the election law by drawing up Beirut districts in a way that would guarantee them victory in the 2009 elections. Meanwhile, a leading member of the pro-government camp, Sports Minister Ahmed Fatfat, accused the opposition of obstructing a solution by asking for more time. "We are not the party that has demanded a postponement," Fatfat told the Qatari Al-Jazeera Television. Both sides refused to divulge details of the mediators' two proposals, out of respect for their hosts. Back in Beirut, dozens of Lebanese handicapped during the civil war and other protesters held a sit-in near the airport, a rally similar to one that saw Lebanese politicians off to Doha last Friday. The crowd held signs with a message to the leaders, in English and Arabic: "If you don't agree, don't come back!!!"