Hezbollah forces Lebanon govt collapse

Beirut, Jan 12 (AFP) Lebanon''s unity governmentcollapsed today after the powerful Hezbollah and its alliesresigned from the cabinet over a UN probe into theassassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri.

Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told a press conferencethat 10 ministers from the 30-member cabinet had tenderedtheir resignations because of a long-running dispute withPrime Minister Saad Hariri -- son of the slain leader -- overthe Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The announcement by Bassil, a member of the ChristianFree Patriotic Movement close to Hezbollah, came just asHariri was meeting in Washington with US President BarackObama on the crisis.

An 11th minister close to President Michel Sleimanalso quit today, thus providing the number of resignationsneeded to topple the government.

The Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allieshave for months been pressing Hariri to disavow the STL on thegrounds that it is part of a US-Israeli plot.

Hezbollah''s camp, which is backed by Iran and Syria,yesterday gave the Western-backed Hariri until today toconvene a cabinet meeting on the tribunal.

According to unconfirmed press reports, the STL ispoised to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection withRafiq Hariri''s 2005 assassination, a scenario the militantparty vehemently rejects.

Environment Minister Mohammad Rahhal, who is close toHariri, told AFP Hezbollah''s decision to quit the governmentwas aimed at paralysing the state and forcing the premier toreject the tribunal.

"They think that by piling the pressure on him, Haririwill bend but they are mistaken," Rahhal said.

The Sunni premier has held talks in recent days in NewYork with Saudi King Abdullah, US Secretary of State HillaryClinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UN SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon over the crisis.

Mustapha Alloush, a senior member of Hariri''s FutureMovement, said Hezbollah and its allies had timed theannouncement of the government collapse to coincide with thepremier''s meeting with Obama at 1500 GMT.

"They want Hariri to enter the meeting with the USpresident as an ex-premier or as head of a caretakergovernment," Alloush told AFP. "But the real goal is to deal amoral blow to the United States."

Syria and Saudi Arabia have for months been attemptingto mediate the crisis but their efforts have failed, withrival Lebanese camps accusing each other of blocking attemptsat a compromise.

"Saad Hariri was on the brink of making a majorconcession as concerns the tribunal but occult forcesprevented him from doing so," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, aformer ally of Hariri, told AFP without elaborating. (AFP)

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