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High-level Lebanese talks in Qatar
Qatar Lebanon Leade 6484641
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, left, walks into the conference room along with his Lebanese counterpart Faud Saniora, Saturday, May 17 in Doha, Qatar. Lebanon's squabbling political leaders held a meeting in Qatar for talks brokered by the Arab League aimed at ending a long-running feud. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon’s ruling coalition demanded Saturday that talks to end the country’s 18-month-old political crisis tackle the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, a demand the militant group rejected.
    Hezbollah insisted the group’s arsenal remain untouched, saying it was necessary for fighting Israel, Lebanese media reported on the first day of the negotiations in Qatar on forming a unity government and electing a president after the country’s worst violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
    The two sides flew to Qatar’s capital, Doha, following a deal mediated by the Arab League that brought an end to a week of violence. The deal included an agreement that the talks would lead to the election of compromise candidate Army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as president.
    President Bush said the country had reached a ‘‘defining moment.’’
    The weapons demand was seen as an attempt by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s side to guarantee that Hezbollah won’t take to the streets again as it did when it overran Sunni Muslim West Beirut in clashes left 67 people dead and wounded more than 200.
    ‘‘This is a defining moment,’’ Bush said after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt. ‘‘It is a moment that requires us to stand strongly with the Saniora government and to support the Saniora government.’’
    Lebanon’s official National News Agency said the Qatar talks became tense when parliament majority leader Saad Hariri, a Sunni, and hardline pro-government Christian politician Samir Geagea brought up the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons.
    Geagea had warned Hezbollah that Doha talks would fail if the Shiite Islamist group sticks to keeping its weapons.
    ‘‘We can no longer accept Hezbollah as it is,’’ he told the Qatari Al-Jazeera TV.
    The private LBC Television said the feuding sides engaged in ‘‘heated discussions’’ over the subject, which took up most of the morning session.
    Lawmaker Mohammed Raad, who heads Hezbollah’s delegation in Qatar, defended the group keeping its arsenal, saying the weapons were meant to fight against Israel and ‘‘must not be touched,’’ according to LBC.
    Lebanon has had no president since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud’s term ended in November.
    The violence last week was triggered by government measures to rein in Hezbollah. The violence eventually forced the government to revoke the measures, giving Hezbollah an upper hand in its standoff with the government.
    Subsequently, Qatari host Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani asked the two sides to stick for now to discussions on a national unity government. According to NNA, they set up a four-party committee to draft a new election law.
    Saniora struck an upbeat note, saying Saturday’s session showed ‘‘all parties are eager to reach an understanding that will lead to the beginning of a solution to this crisis,’’ the private Voice of Lebanon Radio reported.
    Washington and Saniora’s faction have accused Iran and Syria of seeking to undermine the Lebanese government and Middle East stability, while Hezbollah accuses the prime minister and his allies in the anti-Syrian coalition of being America’s servants.
    The talks in Qatar are the first time top leaders from the Lebanese sides came face-to-face in the crisis. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is in hiding fearing assassination by Israel, did not attend.
    Associated Press Writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.

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