Spanish PM holds talks in Lebanon, inspects troops

Saniora briefs his counterpart on "the situation in Lebanon and the continued vacuum in the presidency post."

Spanish pm lebanon 224.8 (photo credit: AP)
Spanish pm lebanon 224.8
(photo credit: AP)
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero held talks Saturday with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Lebanon's deepening political crisis, which has produced a vacuum in the presidency. Zapatero, who arrived here earlier Saturday on a previously unannounced visit, also traveled to southern Lebanon where he inspected his country's troops serving with the UN peacekeeping force overseeing a truce along the Lebanese-Israeli border. During the 45-minute meeting at Beirut airport, Saniora briefed Zapatero on "the situation in Lebanon and the continued vacuum in the presidency post," the state-run National News Agency reported. Lebanon has been without a president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ended Nov. 23, plunging the country into the worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. Saniora's Western-backed government has been locked for more than a year in a fierce power struggle with the Syrian-backed opposition led by Hizbullah. A parliamentary session to elect a new president was postponed for the 11th time on Dec. 28 with feuding factions deadlocked over the shape of a future government. A new parliament session has been set for Jan. 12. Lawmakers on both sides have agreed to back Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as a compromise candidate, but parliament must first amend the constitution to allow a sitting military chief to become president. Zapatero, accompanied by Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alonso, later flew by a UN helicopter to the southern town of Marjayoun near the border with Israel. He inspected 1,100 Spanish troops serving with the UN peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which is increasingly threatened by al-Qaida-inspired militants and political instability in Beirut. Zapatero had lunch with Spanish officers and soldiers and thanked them for their efforts in maintaining peace in southern Lebanon, the NNA reported. "I know that your mission requires sacrifice because you are away from your families and parents," he said, addressing troops. Referring to six Spanish peace keepers killed in south Lebanon last year, Zapatero said, "Your noble mission sometimes requires from you a big sacrifice. On this occasion, we remember our colleagues who fell martyrs last year for the sake of this mission." He stressed that the presence of Spanish troops in Lebanon and elsewhere was to serve world peace. "Peace is our goal... Peace in this region is directly linked to peace and stability in the world and combating world terrorism which causes many crises in the world," Zapatero said. In June, a car bombing killed six peace keepers from the Spanish contingent. Other bombings recently have been thwarted by authorities, with army intelligence announcing in October the arrest of seven Palestinian militants who planned attacks. No group has claimed responsibility for the June attack or another one that followed in July. But in a July videotape, al-Qaida's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri blessed the attack against the Spanish contingent. The 13,530-strong UN force was deployed in southern Lebanon in 2006 along with 15,000 Lebanese troops following the Second Lebanon War.