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Mediators set Lebanon opposition deadline

20/05/2008 - 14:32

By Nadim Ladki

DOHA (Reuters) - Qatari-led mediators gave Lebanon'sHezbollah-led opposition a Wednesday deadline to respond toproposals aimed at resolving a political crisis which broughtthe country to the brink of civil war.

Qatar's minister of state for foreign affairs AhmadAbdullah al-Mahmood said the mediators had put forward twoproposals to break the deadlock between the U.S.-supportedruling coalition and the opposition.

"One of the sides asked for one extra day to respond tothese proposals ... and the committee agreed to give a one daydeadline till tomorrow," Mahmood told reporters on Tuesday.

The negotiations in Doha, which aim to prevent Lebanonsliding back into sectarian strife, follow the Arab League'sintervention last week to end the country's worst domesticfighting since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah used its military muscle to thwarta government attempt to limit its power, briefly seizing partsof Beirut in fighting that killed 81 people.

Delegates in Qatar said the governing coalition acceptedboth proposals to overcome disagreements on sharing power in anational unity government and changes to an election law.

"We are not the party that asked for the postponement,"government minister Ahmed Fatfat told Al Jazeera television.

Agreement on the election law and power sharing in cabinet-- where the opposition has demanded a veto -- would pave theway for parliament to elect army chief General Michel Suleimanas president, a post that has been vacant since November.

DEADLOCK

The rivals were at a deadlock on Monday over the electoraldivision of Beirut -- the bedrock of support for Saadal-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim leader of the U.S.-backed rulingcoalition and close ally of Saudi Arabia.

The boundaries of electoral constituencies will help shapethe outcome of parliamentary polls in 2009.

Delegates said the new proposals called for the immediateelection of a president, a cabinet in which the opposition hadveto powers, a pledge to avoid violence, and two alternativesolutions to the election law impasse.

They said they expected the talks to be suspended if nodeal was reached by Wednesday.

Analysts said the Qatari-led Arab mediators still held outhopes of success, but that their 24-hour deadline might simplybe postponing failure.

"It seems the Arab committee sees itself halfway betweenboth," political columnist Abdel Wahab Badrakhan said. "For thefirst time in the conference the opposition finds itselfcornered and having to respond clearly."

Lebanese politics, built around sectarian power-sharing,have been crippled since November 2006 when the rulingcoalition's refusal to yield to the opposition demands for aveto power triggered the resignation of all Shi'ite ministers.

Hezbollah's defeat of Sunni and Druze pro-government gunmenearlier this month raised sectarian tension and brought thecountry to the brink of war.

The United States blames Syria and Iran, both of which backHezbollah, for the group's offensive this month.

The ruling coalition has demanded clear guarantees thatHezbollah would not turn its guns on Lebanese rivals again andthat the fate of those weapons would be debated in Lebanonsoon.

But the issue of Hezbollah's guns is not on the officialagenda at Doha and the group has refused to discuss it.

(Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Dominic Evans)


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