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Lebanon's Hariri, Nasrallah hold rare meeting

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has met his main political foe, Sunni majority leader Saad al-Hariri, for the first time since the war with Israel in 2006, a statement said on Monday.

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (L) meets with Sunni majority leader Saad al-Hariri in Beirut's suburbs, October 26, 2008. REUTERS/ Handout

The two men were adversaries in an 18-month political conflict that brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war in May before Qatari mediation produced a deal that led to the election of a new president and formation of a national unity government.

The rare meeting, which occurred on Sunday night, marks a breakthrough in the relationship between the two opponents and is likely to cool tensions before 2009 parliamentary elections.

“There was an affirmation of national unity and civil peace and the need to take all measures to prevent tension ... and to reinforce dialogue and to avoid strife regardless of political differences,” the statement issued by both sides said.

Hezbollah’s al Manar television aired footage of the meeting which was attended by aides to both leaders. The statement also said that Nasrallah and Hariri would be in “mutual contact.”

The political crisis reached breaking point in May when Hezbollah and its allies briefly took control of the predominantly Muslim half of Beirut, sparking fighting with followers of rival leaders, including Hariri’s.

The statement said the meeting was “honest and open” and said the leaders would encourage dialogue “by taking steps to calm the situation in the media and in the street.”

Some of the rivals had earlier made reconciliatory efforts but Hariri and Nasrallah’s meeting was seen as the most significant of these.

The statement said Hariri and Nasrallah were also committed to implementing the Qatari-mediated deal which had called for “national dialogue” talks, the first of which were held last month. The next session is due on November 5.

Central to the dialogue is a discussion on the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons.

Demands for the disarmament of the Syrian- and Iranian- backed Hezbollah are at the heart of more than three years of political turbulence in Lebanon since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Saad al-Hariri, his father’s political heir, has insisted that the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons be discussed. Hezbollah says it needs its weapons to defend Lebanon from Israel. The group stood its ground in the 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Hezbollah, which is the most powerful faction in Lebanon and heads an alliance with veto power in government, is not expected to yield to its opponents who want the group’s weapons to be folded under state control.

However it has expressed a willingness to discuss a defense strategy that would define the role of its guerrillas, who outgun the Lebanese army and are armed with thousands of missiles that can hit Israel.

Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki; Editing by Dominic Evans