Future, Hezbollah take steps to defuse sectarian tensions

The Future Movement and Hezbollah welcomed Tuesday practical measures to defuse sectarian tensions in the country by removing political slogans and posters belonging to them from the streets of Beirut and other areas.

The two rival influential parties also rejected the heavy celebratory gunfire that rattled parts of Beirut and the southern suburbs last week before, during and after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s speech and also on all occasions.

They also followed up preparations to implement a government security plan in the northern Bekaa region to crack down on kidnappings for ransom, vendettas, drug smuggling and car thefts, according to a statement issued after a fifth round of talks between senior officials from the Future Movement and Hezbollah held at Speaker Nabih Berri’s residence in Ain al-Tineh.

“The participants continued discussion over a number of points in a frank and responsible manner. They welcomed executive steps to eliminate [political] pictures and posters in Beirut and other areas,” the statement said.

It added that the two sides followed up preparations relating to the completion of the security plan in the northern Bekaa region.

“On the other hand, the participants affirmed their rejection of gunfire on all occasions and on all Lebanese territories, whatever the justification might be,” the terse statement added.

Tuesday’s meeting was held against the backdrop of renewed tension between the two sides caused by the celebratory gunfire and Nasrallah’s fiery speech on new rules of engagement with Israel. The speech drew fire from Future and March 14 politicians who warned that Nasrallah’s remarks jeopardized U.N. Resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006.

The parliamentary Future bloc Tuesday condemned Nasrallah’s speech in which he announced that his group from now on would not recognize the rules of engagement with Israel.

Nasrallah’s speech is “unilateral and hasty and it eliminates the will of the Lebanese people who are committed to Resolution 1701,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The bloc also denounced the salvos of celebratory gunfire by Hezbollah supporters that reverberated in parts of Beirut and the southern suburbs last week. “The gunfire and the firing of rocket-propelled grenades transformed the capital into a city of terror, fear and panic that intimidated citizens, students and pedestrians and caused material damage,” the statement said.

It added that the celebratory gunfire contradicted the goal of the ongoing dialogue between Hezbollah and the Future Movement to reduce sectarian tensions.

Following a security meeting chaired by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk Monday, it was agreed to begin the campaign to remove political slogans, portraits, signage and banners for Hezbollah, the Future Movement and Berri’s Amal Movement from the streets of Beirut and along the coastal highway from the southern city of Sidon to Tripoli in the north starting Thursday.

Defusing Sunni-Shiite tensions is the main item on the dialogue agenda, which also includes finding a mechanism to allow the election of a president, boosting efforts to combat terrorism, promoting a new electoral law and energizing stagnant state institutions.

The dialogue between Hezbollah and the Future Movement has won support from rival politicians, as well as from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, the U.S. and the European Union.

Meanwhile, French presidential envoy Jean-Francois Girault held a new round of talks with Lebanese leaders on the 8-month-old presidential crisis.

Girault, head of the French Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department, did not speak to reporters after meeting separately with Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail, Berri at Ain al-Tineh, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. He also met with former President Michel Sleiman and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

During the one-hour meeting with Salam, Girault briefed the premier on “efforts made by French diplomacy to help ensure holding the presidential election,” the state-run National News Agency reported. It said Girault reviewed with Salam the situation in Lebanon and the region.

Girault arrived here Monday night as part of a French initiative aimed at breaking the presidential deadlock. This is Girault’s second visit to Lebanon in less than two months as part of a regional tour. He had also visited Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Vatican for talks on the presidential deadlock.

Girault, according to a senior Lebanese official who met him, said that France and the West in general are giving utmost importance to internal efforts reflected in intra-Muslim dialogue and intra-Christian dialogue aimed at reaching a common ground to end the vacuum in the presidency.

The French envoy reiterated that his initiative is purely technical, meaning it seeks to gather the views of the Lebanese political parties and combine them, the official said.

He added that Girault would submit a detailed report on the outcome of his talks in Lebanon to his government which would then discuss it with regional and international powers concerned with the presidential vacuum as well as with the Lebanese parties on both sides of the political divide. – With additional reporting by Antoine Ghattas Saab