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Blair visits Lebanon amid heavy security

Written by: Staff

BEIRUT, Sep 11 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair began a visit to Lebanon today as troops and riot police deployed in central Beirut to handle planned protests against his stance during Israel's 34-day war with Hizbollah.

Blair, who angered many Lebanese by his refusal to call for an early ceasefire in the conflict, was due to hold talks with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on the truce in effect since Aug.

14 and Britain's contribution to post-war reconstruction.

Siniora and Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh greeted Blair at the airport, which reopened fully last week after Israel lifted an eight-week blockade on Lebanon's airport and ports.

Security forces sealed off Beirut's central district to traffic for Blair's visit, his first to Lebanon. Pro-Syrian political parties and students have said they will stage demonstrations against the British prime minister.

Blair had been expected to meet Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hizbollah, but an aide to the Shi'ite Muslim politician said he left on a private trip abroad on Saturday.

The aide declined to say whether Berri had deliberately snubbed Blair, but said his trip had been previously planned.

An aide to Blair said two Hizbollah ministers in the cabinet would not attend a planned meeting of the British premier with the Lebanese government.

Top Shi'ite cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah said on Sunday Blair was not welcome because of his support for Israel and Washington. He also criticised Blair for allowing U.S. arms to be shipped via Britain to Israel for use against Lebanon.

''SLAUGHTERING OUR CHILDREN'' Fadlallah said Blair should have been told to stay away so he would ''know we are not so naive as to welcome him when he has contributed to killing us and slaughtering our children''.

The conflict cost the lives of nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

During the war Britain allowed U S flights loaded with bombs for Israel to refuel at an airport in Scotland. Blair also drew criticism at home for standing with U.S. President George W Bush in opposing calls for an early ceasefire.

Blair began his West Asia tour in Israel on Saturday on a peace drive that analysts say is aimed partly at countering criticism of his pro-U S stance during the Lebanon war and partly at bolstering his political legacy.

Last week Blair was forced to concede he will leave office within a year to quell a rebellion in his Labour Party.

Blair said yesterday the international community should deal with a unity Palestinian government if it breaks with the policies of the boycotted Hamas-led administration.

''I believe that such a government, based on the Quartet requirements, does offer the possibility of re-engagement by the international community,'' Blair said.

A Hamas spokesman said President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had achieved a breakthrough in talks that could see the formation of such a government within days.

The Quartet of West Asia peace brokers -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- have cut aid to the Hamas's government, demanding it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past interim peace deals.

Hamas, an Islamist militant group whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, has so far resisted international pressure and calls by Abbas to soften its policy toward the Jewish state.


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