Middle East

Syrian and Saudi leaders call for calm on Beirut visit

The Syrian and Saudi leaders have called on Lebanon's rival factions to avoid turning to violence amid mounting political tensions in the country.

The call came after unprecedented talks in Beirut between Saudi King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

They urged Lebanese to resolve issues through "legal institutions".

The trip marks progress in relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria - two of the region's most influential powers.

Lebanon and Syria only exchanged embassies for the first time last year, and entente between them is seen as crucial to stability in Lebanon.

"The leaders stressed the importance of stability... the commitment (of the Lebanese) not to resort to violence and the need to place the country's interests above all sectarian interests," said a statement issued by the Lebanese presidency after talks between the three leaders.

Conflict looming?

The day-long visit was Mr Assad's first to Lebanon since Syria was forced to withdraw its troops after a 29-year military presence following the 2005 killing of former PM Rafik Hariri.

The Syrian president gave reporters a thumbs-up as he left the talks at the presidential palace outside Beirut, saying simply: "It was an excellent summit."

Both he and the Saudi leader are worried conflict could break out if, as rumoured, a UN tribunal indicts members of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement over the Hariri killing.

Mr Assad and King Abdullah pledged to work together to help stabilise Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah - who rarely appears in public - was not at the meeting, although Hezbollah cabinet ministers took part in talks between the Syrian and Saudi delegations and Lebanese MPs after the leaders' meeting.

Hezbollah is Syria's main ally in Lebanon, while the Saudis have strong ties with the country's Sunni community and the current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the murdered ex-prime minister.

Mr Assad and King Abdullah are thought to have been instrumental in ending the five months of deadlock which preceded the formation of Lebanon's unity government - which includes Hezbollah - last November.

The Saudis and Syrians backed opposing factions when sectarian tensions spilled into raging street battles in Beirut two years ago.

Now they have mended their own fences, analysts say, they are urging their respective allies in Lebanon to put the country's stability above any other consideration.

'Major stability'

Lebanon's relations with Syria have been complicated since the Hariri assassination, the huge anti-Syrian demonstrations that followed, and Syria's military withdrawal in 2005.

But things have improved since then, analysts say. Saad Hariri has visited Damascus twice as prime minister for talks with Mr Assad, setting aside earlier accusations that Syria was behind his father's death.

Mr Assad's visit to Beirut takes that normalisation a step further.

Tensions have risen in the past week, however, with the Hezbollah leader reacting angrily to persistent reports that the Hariri tribunal may indict several members of his Islamist group.

He made clear that he would not accept such a scenario, accusing the tribunal of being politicised and part of an "Israeli project".

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