Lebanon tensions ease as Shi'ite officials visit Christian area

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 02, 2018 7:23 AM

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Officials from Lebanon's Shi'ite parties Amal and Hezbollah visited a mainly Christian district of Beirut on Friday to help defuse tensions ignited this week by a row involving the country's president and the parliamentary speaker.

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, enraged supporters of Shi'ite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, when he was heard in a leaked video calling Berri "a thug". Bassil and Aoun are Maronite Christians.

Demanding an apology, supporters of Berri and his Amal movement staged protests in various parts of the country.

The standoff threatened to inflame sectarian violence and paralyze the government in the run-up to legislative elections in May, the first since 2009 after parliament extended its own term three times.

But Aoun spoke by telephone with Berri on Thursday, and the standoff eased further on Friday with a meeting between the Shi'ite officials and members of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in the mainly Christian district of Hadat, on the southern outskirts of Beirut.

"Our meeting today is a message countering all that happened in recent days," said Alain Aoun, an FPM lawmaker. "It is also a message to (Speaker Berri) that his dignity and ours are one."

CALL FOR UNITY

At a joint news conference, lawmakers from Amal, Hezbollah, and the FPM called for national unity and religious tolerance.

Amal distanced itself from the protests of the past few days, which saw some supporters set tyres ablaze, block roads and fire guns into the air, leading to the deployment of troops in Hadat on Wednesday to prevent violence.

"Everybody knows the Amal movement has nothing at all to do with what has happened," Ali Bazzi, an Amal lawmaker, said.

"And we have the courage the morality... to apologize publicly for any offense that affected the Lebanese on the ground," he added.

The FPM says Bassil has already expressed regret over his remarks, and that it regards the issue as over. Berri has previously said Bassil should apologize "to the Lebanese people" for his remarks.

Tensions between the Aoun and Berri camps had been escalating since December, when the president signed a decree promoting dozens of army officers without the signature of the Shi'ite finance minister, one of Berri's closest aides.

Berri has accused Aoun of exceeding his powers at the expense of other sects.

The latest standoff has again exposed the fragility of Lebanon's faction-based politics.

Lebanon's system of government aims to maintain a balance between the country's many religious sects, who fought a 1975-1990 civil war. Berri and Aoun, both now in their 80s, were civil war enemies.

Iran-backed Hezbollah's links to Berri and Amal run much deeper than its political alliance with the FPM.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Gareth Jones)