Syria and Saudi Arabia seek to calm tensions in Lebanon

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BEIRUT: Syria and Saudi Arabia have stepped in to ease tensions in Lebanon in light of an escalating crisis between rival political parties over a UN-backed tribunal probing the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad contacted Prime Minister Saad Hariri late Wednesday to discuss developments, Hariri’s office said, while Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon met a Hezbollah delegation that same evening.

Lebanese media and observers said the Saudi and Syrian efforts were clear signs that both countries were keen on calming tensions in Beirut over reports that a UN-backed tribunal probing the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri — Saad Hariri’s father — was set to implicate the powerful Hezbollah in the murder.

There are fears that should the court indict Hezbollah members, this could lead to a Sunni-Shiite conflict similar to the one that brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.

Hariri’s killing along with 22 others sparked an international outcry and forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon following a 29-year presence.

But in a stunning reversal earlier this month, Saad Hariri said he had been wrong to blame Damascus for his father’s death.

His about-turn was interpreted as a sign of his Western- and Saudi-backed alliance’s weakness in the face of Syria’s bid to regain influence over its smaller neighbour.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has made clear that it would not stand idle should any of its members be indicted by the UN tribunal and in recent weeks has upped its campaign to discredit the court.

The Shiite movement’s deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qassem said in an interview published Thursday by the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai that Hezbollah had not uttered its "last word" as concerns the tribunal.

Qassem told the daily that his party had given time for Saudi efforts to "redress the wrongful course" of the UN probe, which he said was clearly bent on issuing "an unjust indictment."

He added that Hezbollah in coming weeks would take a definitive stand as concerns the tribunal, which it accuses of being part of an Israeli plot.

"We are in a test period and in light of the results of Saudi mediation we will take a clear-cut position on the tribunal," Qassem said.

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