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Lebanon speaker calls talks to defuse crisis

Written by: Staff

BEIRUT, Oct 25 (Reuters) Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri today called a meeting of Lebanon's feuding political leaders to defuse a crisis threatening the country's stability.

Berri, a Shi'ite Muslim leader allied with Hezbollah, asked politicians to hold talks for up to 15 days from October 30 to discuss demands for a national unity government and a new election law.

Hezbollah and its allies have been demanding a new government since a 34-day war between Israel and the Shi'ite Muslim guerrillas ended in August.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government is dominated by members of an anti-Syrian coalition which backs international calls for the disarming of Hezbollah.

The US-backed coalition has dismissed the call for a new government, prompting pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies to threaten street protests to force a change.

''I believe this tension and this escalation will lead to confrontations in the Lebanese street,'' Berri told a news conference.

''Regrettably, we know of the vertical and horizontal divisions in the country, and I don't want to say sectarian, so we're trying to keep the issue restricted among us (the leaders) and through dialogue,'' he said.

Any trouble in Beirut could torpedo a donors meeting to be held in Paris in January to help Lebanon recover from the war and support its chronically ailing economy.

Berri said he had not contacted any leader in advance about his proposal for political talks. Anti-Syrian politicians said later they would consult before deciding whether to take part.

Berri said Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who some Israeli officials have said is a target for assassination, could send a representative to the talks in the parliament building in central Beirut rather than attend personally.

Siniora formed his government after last year's elections, the first since Syria withdrew its troops following the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, blamed by many Lebanese on Damascus.

Damascus has denied killing Hariri and a United Nations team is investigating the assassination.

The anti-Syrian coalition has a majority in parliament, but Siniora's 24-member cabinet also includes five ministers from Hezbollah and Berri's Amal group.

Hezbollah wants more of its allies included, especially Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun and pro-Syrian groups.

Berri hosted several ''National Dialogue'' meetings this year, but these have lapsed since war erupted on July 12 after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Many anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders blamed Hezbollah for starting the war that cost some 1,200 lives in Lebanon and inflicted physical damage worth 3.5 billion dollars. Some 157 Israelis were also killed in the war.

A UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon is monitoring a cessation of hostilities that took effect on August 14.


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