Lebanese leaders at odds during visit by UN chief

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Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati attends an interview with Reuters at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

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BEIRUT, Dec 20 (Reuters) - A new bid to convene Lebanon's paralysed government hit a wall on Monday with ruling politicians at odds over the terms of a potential deal even as visiting U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged them to come together in the national interest.

Guterres arrived on Sunday to rally international support for the troubled country and urge its leaders to address a financial meltdown caused by decades of graft and misgovernment many of them oversaw. The crisis, in its third year, has left four in five people poor, according to a U.N. agency.

But despite expressions of goodwill by Guterres on Monday following meetings with parliament speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a fresh attempt to reconvene the cabinet faltered.

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Lebanon's cabinet, which is focused on talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unlock much needed foreign aid, has not met since Oct. 12 amid a row over a probe into last year's deadly Beirut port blast.

Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally Amal, led by Berri, have conditioned a return to cabinet sessions on the removal of the judge probing the blast, Tarek Bitar, who they accuse of bias. Bitar has sought to interrogate two senior Amal members charged over the blast as well as a host of senior politicians and security officials.

Mikati visited Berri following separate meetings he and the speaker had with Guterres. Mikati left the short meeting with Berri apparently frustrated, swatting a reporter out of his way and answering: "We are not concerned (with this)," when asked about a potential deal to reconvene Cabinet by removing Bitar.

A source close to Berri told Reuters without elaborating that proposals to reconvene cabinet had been discussed by Berri and Mikati.

In a statement issued later, Mikati acknowledged he was trying to reconvene the cabinet but added that during his meeting with Berri he had declined to "interfere in the work of the judiciary in any way, or to consider Cabinet an arena for settlements that directly or equivocally deal with interference in judicial affairs."

Mikati said he had conveyed his "unambiguous" position to both Berri and President Michel Aoun. A senior member of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement denied media reports the party had agreed to a proposal to reconvene the cabinet that would see Bitar removed.

Torpedoing Bitar would risk further harming Lebanon's relationship with western donors as well as with the United Nations. Gutteres had visited the ruined port on Monday morning, laying a wreath on a memorial and later calling for "proper accountability" for the blast that killed more than 215 people.

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Reporting by Timour Azhari Editing by William Maclean

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