Clinton says Syria may exploit instability in Lebanon

WASHINGTON Wed Oct 24, 2012 4:09pm EDT

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WASHINGTON Oct 24 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Syria could take advantage of a political vacuum in Lebanon, and she urged Lebanese politicians to form a government free of "proxies and agents for outside forces."

Clinton said the United States supports Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's effort to form a new government amid a political crisis following the killing of a top intelligence officer in a Beirut car bombing on Oct. 19.

The car bombing and ensuing clashes brought the civil war in Syria into the heart of Lebanon and triggered a political crisis, with the opposition demanding the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati's cabinet.

"We don't want to see a vacuum of legitimate political authority that could then be taken advantage by the Syrians or by others," Clinton told reporters in an appearance with Brazil's visiting foreign minister.

"We call on all parties in Lebanon to support the process that President Suleiman is leading to chose a responsible, effective government," Clinton added.

Clinton said the United States would not prejudge who should have a role in the new Lebanese administration, which could replace Mikati's Hezbollah-backed government that critics charge is too close to the Syrian government.

"This must be a Lebanese process. But the Lebanese people deserve so much better: they deserve to live in peace and they deserve to have a government that reflects their aspirations not acts as proxies and agents for outside forces," Clinton said.

Violence has increased in Lebanon following Friday's assassination of senior Lebanese security official Wissam al-Hassan, who had worked to counter Syrian influence in Lebanon.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to answer repeated questions on whether the United States believes that Mikati or Hezbollah should play a political role in any new administration.

"We want to see this process move forward. We've been very clear about our concerns about the role that Hezbollah is playing inside Lebanon, and inside Syria," Nuland said.

Lebanon is still haunted by its 1975-1990 civil war. Many Lebanese fear Syria's war will drag their country back into conflict, destroying their efforts to rebuild it as a center of trade, finance and tourism with a semblance of democracy.

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