Lebanese sign reconciliation deal in volatile city

A04981817.jpgTRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) – Rival Lebanese leaders signed on Monday a reconciliation deal aimed at ending four months of sporadic sectarian fighting in a volatile northern city that had raised fears of a rise of Islamist militancy.

Leaders of the Sunni Muslim and Alawite communities in the port of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, signed the document at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora at the house of north Lebanon Mufti Sheikh Malek Sha’ar.

The six-point document brokered by Saad al-Hariri, the Sunni leader of the country’s anti-Syrian majority coalition, calls for handing over security in the city to the Lebanese army to ensure its stability.

It also calls for reconciliation among all factions and pledges compensation to people affected by the fighting, rebuilding the damage and developing poor areas.

“Tripoli is a unified city … and the state is its guarantor and sponsor,” Siniora told the meeting. “The state will perform its security role and impose security in the city.”

At least 22 people have been killed in Tripoli since June in sectarian fighting linked to Lebanon’s broader political troubles. A separate bomb attack in August in the city killed 15 people, including 10 soldiers.

The fighting in the mostly Sunni city has pitted Alawite factions against Sunni gunmen. The main Alawite group has close links to Syria, which is headed by Alawite President Bashar al-Assad. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Hariri’s followers are the main Sunni political force in Tripoli. Islamist militants are also active.

The violence raised fears both locally and abroad that al Qaeda-linked groups could use the tension to beef up their presence in the area or that it could be used by Syria as an excuse to send its forces back into Lebanon.

Syria ended three decades of military presence in Lebanon under international pressure in 2005 after the assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.

The document was signed by the city’s Alawite and Sunni leaders as well as Siniora and Hariri. Among those Sunnis who signed were leaders from both of the country’s anti- and pro-Syrian camps as well as fundamentalist figures.

Beirut-based Hariri has been in Tripoli since Friday in what his aides said was a drive to end the violence and secure aid to the poor areas of the city. Hariri is a billionaire businessman who has several social welfare and charity organizations.

Syria’s Assad warned on Thursday that Lebanon was still in a fragile state and said he was worried about foreign-backed “extremist forces” fomenting instability in Tripoli. His comments have drawn sharp rebukes from Hariri and his allies.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently said foreign meddling in Tripoli was fuelling tensions.

Tensions in Tripoli have overshadowed Lebanon’s return to political stability after Qatar mediated in May an end to an 18-month power struggle between the anti-Syrian coalition led by Hariri and the pro-Syrian alliance, led by Shi’ite Hezbollah.

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