Lahoud bows to majority, names Siniora PM

BEIRUT (Reuters) — Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president bowed to the will of the majority on Thursday and appointed an anti-Syria former minister to head the first government to take office without Syrian troops in the country for 30 years.

Highlighting the challenges facing the next government, Israeli troops shot at Hizbollah in an Israeli-occupied border area in the second day of the worst violence seen there in six months.

Fouad Siniora, a former finance minister and aide to assassinated former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was proposed by the Future Bloc led by Hariri’s son, Saad. He remains close to the family and is the chairman of one of Hariri’s banks.

All but two lawmakers nominated Siniora, a choice President Emile Lahoud was obliged to respect though relations between the two are said to be frosty.

Elections that ended on June 19 returned an anti-Syrian majority to parliament for the first time since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Syria pulled out its troops in April under Lebanese and international pressure after the killing of the elder Hariri, which triggered Lebanon’s worst post-war political crisis.

Lahoud met bloc representatives and independent lawmakers to receive their nominations for prime minister, a post reserved for a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon’s sectarian political system. An unprecedented 126 out of 128 backed Siniora.

Agreeing on a government will be more contentious because pro-Syrian Lahoud can oppose the prime minister’s line-up, which is likely to include anti-Syrians and few of Lahoud’s allies.

Hariri’s killing on February 14 was followed by a string of assassinations and bomb attacks in and around Beirut that have prompted many to ask: “Who’s next?”

The Future Bloc said on Wednesday it had nominated Siniora to “establish a democratic system which will establish stability and confidence in the country … and face the challenges of the public debt.”

Parliament reelected pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim Nabih Berri as speaker on Tuesday in a compromise highlighting how hard it will be for anti-Syrian lawmakers to erase Damascus’s influence.

Pro-Syrian Shiite groups Hizbollah and Amal reciprocated on Thursday by nominating Siniora, but two out of the top three political posts remain in the hands of Syria’ allies.

Siniora’s appointment will send a good signal to investors and the business community. He was finance minister for most of Lebanon’s post-civil war period under Hariri and is credited with controlling spending and introducing post war taxes.

Tackling tiny Lebanon’s debt burden — one of the world’s heaviest at about $36 billion, or about 185 per cent of its GDP — must be a priority for the next government.

UN appeals for calm after Israel targets Hizbollah

KIRYAT SHMONA (AFP) — Israel carried out fresh air strikes Thursday targetting Hizbollah fighters who were feared to still be in a border area the day after a deadly flare-up there.

The latest raids in the Shebaa Farms region came as the United Nations appealed for calm from all sides and as a new prime minister was named in Lebanon.

“The purpose of this operation was to rule out the possiblity that any terrorists were still in the area” after Wednesday’s attack on an Israeli army post, a military spokeswoman said.

The strike took place within the borders of Israel, she added.

The Shebaa Farms were captured by Israel from Syria in 1967 and are now claimed by Lebanon with the approval of Damascus, but Israel considers them its territory.

Hizbollah’s Al Manar television confirmed the raid, saying Israel had fired an air-to-ground missile.

One soldier was killed on Wednesday when fighters from the Shiite militia had attacked an Israeli army position. Israel responded with air strikes.

Military sources had earlier said that at least one Hizbollah fighter was possibly killed or injured when the militants approached an Israeli army post in the flashpoint Shebaa Farms area.

But Hizbollah denied there had been a gunfight with Israeli troops or any victims among its fighters.

The latest strike came on the day that Lebanon named anti-Syrian former finance minister Fuad Siniora to form a government following the first parliamentary election since Damascus ended its three-decade military presence in April.

Israel, which is facing the threat of a new front opening up as it prepares for the Gaza Strip pullout, has urged the Lebanese government to take action to bring their common border under control.

“The Lebanese government must take responsibility for the Israeli-Lebanese border and prevent terrorist organisations … from inflaming the situation,” an Israeli army statement said after Wednesday’s attack.

The UN’s special representative for southern Lebanon, Geir Pederson, also called for action from the Lebanese government.

Pederson “called upon the government of Lebanon to extend its control over all of its territory, to exert its monopoly on the use of force and to put an end to all attacks emanating from its territory,” he said in a statement.

“The Israeli authorities (should) refrain from their air violations of the blue line,” he added in reference to a line demarcated by the UN between Israel and Lebanon after Israel withdrew from the south of the country in May 2000.

Diplomats at UN headquarters in New York, meanwhile, said the Security Council would hold consultations Thursday on the Middle East after the United States requested talks to discuss southern Lebanon.

Overnight, Israeli aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets over areas of southern Lebanon calling on the government and people to prevent Hizbollah from continuing its “aggression against Israeli territory.”

“Hizbollah, whose foreign links are known, has resumed its terrorist activitities with a view to provoking an Israeli response… and plunge Lebanon back into fear just as it is hoping to renew itself in stability and prosperity,” the leaflet said.

Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has a large bloc of seats in Lebanon’s new parliament in alliance with a smaller Shiite group, Amal. It is under pressure from a UN Security Council resolution to disarm, and this issue will be one of the first tests of a new government about to be formed in Lebanon.

The militia has retained control over the area since May 2000, when Israeli forces withdrew under a Hizbollah spearheaded campaign after a 22-year occupation.

The small mountainous Shebaa Farms area lies at the convergence of the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian borders. It was captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and is now claimed by Lebanon, with Damascus’s approval.

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