Saniora refuses resignation of Hizbullah ministers

Lebanon faces crisis over impasse.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora refused to accept the resignation of Hizbullah and Amal ministers on Saturday, hours after the five Shi'ite members quit in protest. Saniora "rejects the resignation of the colleagues representing Hizbullah even if he receives the formal written resignations," his office said in a statement. Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem declined to comment on the dramatic development, saying it was too early to know how the affair would play out. One official, however, said that while Jerusalem did not want to take a public position on internal Lebanese political matters, Israel did expect that any Beirut government would be bound by the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the fighting between Israel and Hizbullah in August. The Lebanese premier's decision means the five ministers are still legally part of the government and that his cabinet remains in office. Still, the resignations threw the country's political landscape into chaos hours after rival politicians failed to agree on Hizbullah's demand to form a national unity government. The government has lost the support of Shi'ites, the country's largest sect, making it difficult for Saniora to govern. At least nine ministers would need to resign for the government to fall. Hizbullah and Amal said their ministers resigned because all-party talks on a national unity government fell through, with the government trying to impose conditions, according to Hizbullah's Al-Manar television. Al-Manar said the ministers quit because they refused "to cover up that which we are not convinced of and that which might damage the supreme national interests." Their resignations was also a result of authorities "insisting on imposing terms and premature results for negotiations," Al-Manar said. Saniora's statement indicated that he was open for dialogue to bring the ministers back into the fold. Saniora "strongly insists on their continued active participation in the government," the statement said. The cabinet will continue to govern based on the constitution "in words and spirit" and "on the basis of consultation, dialogue and consensus," Saniora said. Hizbullah, Amal and their political allies have been demanding at least one-third representation in a national unity cabinet, which would give them effective veto power over key decisions and the ability to bring down the government. Parliament has refused their demand and the two sides have been holding talks for several days over the issue. It was not immediately clear whether Hizbullah would stick to the ultimatum it gave political leaders - to reach a deal on the national unity government or face mass street protests beginning Monday. Hizbullah's fierce resistance to Israel during last summer's war has gained the group increasing political clout. Saturday's breakdown in negotiations and cabinet resignations came a day after the government received a draft document that would create an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri - another potential land mine in the escalating tensions between Saniora's government and opponents. Michel Aoun, the leader of a Christian faction allied with Hizbullah, accused the government's anti-Syrian majority of "working outside the norms of a democratic system." Samir Geagea, another Christian politician, suggested that the document to set up the Hariri tribunal was partly responsible for the failure of the talks. "Unfortunately, there are some who are trying undermine the international tribunal," he said. Saniora received the draft document on Friday, setting in motion the process of creating a "tribunal with an international character" to try suspects in the Hariri bombing, as authorized by the UN Security Council. Saniora called for a cabinet meeting to be held Monday to vote on the UN draft document. But in a sign of escalating tensions, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud rejected the request.•