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ARAB AFFAIRS - Feb 5 - Arab League Ambassador Arrives To Lay Groundwork For Expected Moussa Visit.

Arab League Ambassador Hisham Youssef arrives in Beirut to "gauge the opinions" of Lebanon's opposing political camps prior to the as-yet-unscheduled arrival of league chief Moussa. "You won't like what I have to say", Youssef told the media after a meeting with Amal Movement MP Ali Hassan Khalil. "Leave us alone to do our talks in private and reach some sort of solution for the difficult time Lebanon is passing through", Youssef told reporters following the meeting. Youssef, one of Moussa's top aides, arrived in Lebanon after a weekend that saw no break in verbal sparring between opposition leaders and government figures, despite outbreaks of street violence a week earlier. Youssef, who is to remain in Lebanon until Feb 7, has scheduled meetings with officials from both sides of the political divide in order to pave the way for the resumption of mediation efforts by Moussa. "We hope he comes here soon, and we are doing what we can so that [Moussa's] return will succeed in solving the crisis", Youssef said. Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said last week that Moussa would resume his mediation on Feb 8. Other media reports said that Moussa will return prior to Feb 14, the two-year anniversary of the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri. Moussa is expected to visit Russia this week. He is expected to ask Russia to influence its ally, Syria, to co-operate more on the international tribunal to try those involved in killing Hariri and others. The head of the Arab League is also trying to mend fences between Riyadh and Damascus. He is expected to visit both capitals before or immediately after he comes to Beirut. When asked whether there were any positive signs in the political deadlock, Youssef asked: What do you think"? Observers argued that Moussa's decision to send Youssef to head the second round of mediation efforts in Lebanon is an attempt to sideline the Sudanese initiative led by presidential envoy Mustafa Ismail. The Arab League chief began mediating between the Hizbullah-led opposition and the Western-backed government of PM Fouad Siniora in mid-December, after the opposition camp began an open-ended sit-in outside the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut on December 1 to demand a greater say in government. Khalil, the Amal MP, told reporters that the opposition had explained its demands "more clearly" this time around to the Arab League envoy. "It was a chance to clarify our position and to be informed of the outcome of the talks between the Arab League and the other politicians", said Khalil. Khalil said that the opposition "will not back off" from its demands, but will remain "careful" not to drag the country into another civil war. Youssef also met with Siniora for an hour and a half, but declined comment afterward, saying: Let us work behind the curtains for once". Earlier in the day, Siniora, along with Culture Minister Tarek Mitri, met with US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. The officials discussed Israeli cluster bombs in the South and Youssef's visit to Lebanon. Mitri said that the Arab League envoy had come to Lebanon "based on an agreement between the Lebanese government and Moussa". "Siniora and Moussa are in constant communication with each other", said Mitri. Youssef was also scheduled to meet Monday with Hizbullah representative Hussein Khalil. Meanwhile, Arab diplomats were scheduled to hold talks abroad this week to try to defuse Lebanon's political crisis, diplomats and Lebanese political sources told Reuters on Feb 5. Ongoing talks between senior Iranian and Saudi officials have helped to keep the peace in Beirut after seven people were killed and 400 wounded in street clashes late last month. "There has been little progress toward a deal", a Lebanese political source said. "But at least the diplomatic activity helped calm the situation before it got out of hand". The source said Saudi and Iranian influence with their respective allies in Lebanon had gone some way toward dampening street tensions. Over the past two weeks, senior Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar bin Sultan has visited Tehran, Washington, Moscow and Paris for talks on the Lebanese crisis and other regional issues. In other developments, former Pres Amin Gemayel said the opposition's determination to bring pressure Siniora's government is a "coup d'etat". He added that the move was unconstitutional. "In my opinion, what's going on in Lebanon is really a coup d'etat ... It's a coup d'etat against the Lebanese Constitution", he said on CNN television on Feb 4. Gemayel, who is in Washington to meet with US Pres Bush and other top officials, also said that Lebanon cannot afford a new civil war, which some fear could break out if political leaders and diplomats do not succeed in reaching across a perceived deepening of sectarian fault lines in the country. "This coup d'etat is to block the constitutional process ... to endorse the international tribunal. Because Syria is really afraid, because it's the first suspect in the ... crimes", Gemayel said, referring in part to Hariri's assassination.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Date:Feb 10, 2007
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