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Lebanese justice minister resigns, blames Hezbollah over deadlock, court case

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi resigned on Sunday, blaming political rivals Hezbollah for the country’s political deadlock and protesting over the release on bail of a former minister sentenced for smuggling explosives from Syria.

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Lebanon’s political crisis has left it without a president for 21 months with rival factions unable to agree on a candidate, and has paralyzed state institutions, preventing the government from taking even basic decisions.

The release on bail of ex-information minister Michel Samaha last month after serving eight months of a 4 1/2 year jail sentence for smuggling explosives from neighboring Syria and planning attacks drew anger and condemnation from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents in Lebanon.

In a new sign of regional tension spilling over into Lebanon, Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended a military aid package to the Lebanese security forces in what an official said was a response to Beirut’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

Rifi said Hezbollah was to blame for the political paralysis, the Samaha case and the Saudi episode.

“Continuing (to be part of) this government has become an agreement to this deviation, or at least is a failure to confront it,” Rifi said in a statement.

“So I present to you and to Prime Minister Tammam Salam my resignation,” he said.

The cabinet was to hold an emergency session on Monday, the National News Agency said.

Rifi described the Samaha case as a “national crime which Hezbollah is responsible for,” calling for the case to be referred to international courts.

The case captivated a Lebanese public accustomed to seeing political violence go unpunished. It was another example of how turmoil in Syria is rippling through a country where Damascus has played a major role for decades and whose future will be shaped by the outcome of the civil war next door.

Hezbollah is an ally of Assad and of Iran, and its fighters have provided crucial support for Damascus’s efforts to turn battles in western Syria in its favor.

Saudi Arabia backs insurgents fighting against Assad.

Reporting by John Davison and Laila Bassam; Editing by Richard Balmforth