Lebanon in political turmoil as govt collapses

BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon was plunged into political turmoil on Thursday after Hezbollah toppled the government over a long-running dispute linked to a UN probe into the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

The hard-won unity government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- son of the slain leader -- collapsed on Wednesday after months of wrangling between the premier and Hezbollah over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

AFP file - Hezbollah flags flutter in Beirut over a marble plate displaying pictures the Shiite party militants killed during the Israeli offensive in 2006.

The move thrust the country into its worst political crisis since 2008 and sparked fears of sectarian Shiite-Sunni unrest.

President Michel Sleiman asked the cabinet on Thursday to continue acting in a caretaker capacity as he prepares to launch consultations with parliamentary groups on appointing a new premier, which in line with tradition, must be a Sunni Muslim.

Hariri is the country's most popular Sunni politicians but it was unclear whether he, or Hezbollah, would agree to his reappointment given the animosity between the two sides.

The powerful Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the government formed in November 2009 as Hariri was in Washington holding talks with US President Barack Obama on the crisis.

The 40-year-old Hariri made no comment after the announcement and headed to France where he was to meet on Thursday with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

For months, Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, has been pressing the Western-backed Hariri to disavow the special tribunal saying it is part of a US-Israeli plot.

According to unconfirmed press reports, the tribunal is poised to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination, a move the militant party vehemently rejects.

An analyst on Thursday predicted a long drawn out crisis that could eventually spiral into violence.

"It's going to take many months, probably, to form a new government," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.

"On the downside, this could be the first step in a decline into other forms of tension," he told AFP.

"I don't think we have the makings of a deliberate Hezbollah military action in Beirut, but we might soon be running the risk of unpredictable events on the street as it were, which could get out of hand," he added. "We're not there yet, but we could get there very soon."

The White House accused Hezbollah of toppling the government out of "fear" and reaffirmed its full support for Hariri and the tribunal.

France, Britain and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also reiterated their unconditional support for the tribunal set up in 2007 following Hariri's murder and that of a number of anti-Syrian politicians.

The European Union called for dialogue among the rival parties while stressing its support for a government of national unity.

Syria and Saudi Arabia in recent months had sought to mediate the crisis but failed in their efforts with the Lebanese rivals accusing each other of refusing to compromise.

Hariri in recent days had discussed the crisis in New York with Saudi King Abdullah, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sarkozy and Ban.

Clinton, who was in Qatar on Wednesday, said Hezbollah's attempt to undermine stability in Lebanon was bound to fail.

"We view what happened today as a transparent effort by those forces inside Lebanon, as well as interests outside Lebanon, to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon's stability and progress," Clinton said.

"Trying to bring the government down as a way to undermine the special tribunal is an abdication of responsibility, but it also will not work."

The standoff between Hariri's camp and Hezbollah had virtually paralysed the government since its creation and prompted fears of sectarian violence similar to that which brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.

The 2008 unrest that left around 100 people dead was the culmination of an 18-month political crisis that erupted in 2006 after Hezbollah withdrew its ministers from the government.

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