BEIRUT (Reuters) - Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Lebanon’s rival leaders on Friday to stave off a crisis over a tribunal that may indict Hezbollah members in the killing of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.
Hariri’s 2005 assassination set off a huge political tremor in Lebanon, where the repercussions are still playing out five years later. The dramatic joint Saudi-Syrian visit to Beirut demonstrated urgent Arab concern to calm tensions in Lebanon.
A statement from the Lebanese presidency said the leaders had discussed “ways to reinforce national accord and Lebanon’s stability” and stressed the need to avoid violence.
Assad and Abdullah are alarmed by the political ferment set off by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah this month when he said Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri had told him the tribunal would indict “rogue” Hezbollah members for his father’s killing.
Nasrallah says Lebanon must reject any such indictments from the tribunal, which he calls “an Israeli project.”
Hariri, a Saudi ally whose unity cabinet includes Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian factions, supports the U.N.-backed tribunal’s efforts to bring his father’s assassins to justice.
The Hague-based tribunal says talk of indictments is speculation and the prosecutor will file them when he is ready.
Disputes between a Hariri-led alliance and Hezbollah brought Lebanon close to renewed civil war in 2008, when the Shi’ite guerrillas briefly overran Beirut. But a Qatari-brokered deal backed by Damascus and Riyadh has produced relative calm since.
Lebanese political analyst Suleiman Taqi al-Deen said the Saudi-Syrian visit was “important, exceptional and pre-emptive.”
“It is the first time it happens before a situation in Lebanon explodes. It is an understanding to defuse the Lebanese problem because if it explodes its consequences will be very dangerous on the region,” he told Reuters.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman held talks with the visiting Saudi and Syrian heads of state and then hosted a lunch attended by Lebanese politicians.
In side meetings, Abdullah visited Hariri’s house, Assad conferred with pro-Syrian Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem met Hezbollah lawmakers.
Motorcades then whisked the heads of state, who had arrived together on a Saudi aircraft from Damascus, back to the airport, ahead of the scheduled arrival of the Emir of Qatar.
Interior Minister Ziad Baroud told reporters more work would be needed to build on the summit in Beirut.
“The challenges in the region are very big. So this kind of embrace at the highest levels is necessary,” he said.
Assad’s visit was his first to Beirut since the bombing that killed Hariri and sparked an outcry in Lebanon. Pressure from the United States, France and Saudi Arabia eventually forced Assad to end Syria’s 29-year military presence in its neighbor.
Hariri, then leading a broad anti-Syrian coalition, at first accused Damascus of killing his father. U.N. investigators also implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials. Syria denies any hand in the elder Hariri’s assassination or later political killings of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon.
Since he became prime minister last year, Hariri has dropped his anti-Syrian rhetoric and has visited Damascus several times to forge a rapprochement with Assad, who has also improved ties with Western powers and developed close links with Turkey.
The Saudi monarch was last in the Lebanese capital for a 2002 Arab summit, when he was still Crown Prince, and he is the first Saudi king to come to Lebanon for decades.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Alistair Lyon