PM Hariri discusses with Pope, Vatican officials Lebanon, regional developments, pontiff says supporting, praying for Lebanon

Hariri: We’re not scared by Israel’s threats, seek to compel it to observe UNSC resolution 1701

Moussa stresses support for Lebanon, urges participation in Arab summit, warns of “serious” regional conditions

French PM Fillon urges Syria to exert efforts to settle Iran’s nuke issue, back peace march

European countries want tough measures to bring Iran to stop uranium enrichment

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has warned of Israeli attempts to start a military confrontation with Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

Hariri, who was in Italy to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, urged Rome to pressure Israel to take part in peace negotiations.

"Israel can't claim to be interested in the peace process without doing anything tangible in this regard," Hariri said, noting that the Israelis were currently gripped with division.

The Lebanese prime minister, who was taking part in an interview with Italian channel RAI News 24 on Friday, added that while "Arabs want peace," Israel only seeks war with "Lebanon, Syria and Iran."

Hariri also highlighted daily Israeli violations of Lebanese air space and described them as unacceptable.

This is not the first time during the past weeks that Hariri has warned of the "escalating" threats that Israel poses to the Middle East, as officials in Tel Aviv have been repeating threats of a full-fledged war against Lebanon.

Late last month, an Israeli minister revealed the regime's intentions to wage a third attack on Lebanon. Some news outlets have even reported that Tel Aviv had already mobilized its troops for the military aggression.

On February 5, Hariri objected to the increasing number of Lebanese airspace violations carried out by Israeli warplanes. He also called on the international community to prevent a possible Israeli attack on his country.

Just days later, he renewed his call and warned Tel Aviv that it would be confronted by a united Lebanon if war breaks out.

"I think they're betting that there might be some division in Lebanon, if there is a war against us…Well, there won't be a division in Lebanon… We will stand against Israel. We will stand with our own people," he vowed.

Pope Benedict XVI in a meeting Saturday with Lebanese Premier Hariri, praised the peaceful coexistence in Lebanon between various religious communities, including Druze, Christians and Muslims. Hope was expressed "that the country (Lebanon), through the exemplary coexistence of the various religious communities ... may continue to be a 'message' for the region of the Middle East and for the whole world," the Vatican said in a statement issued after the morning talks.

In a newspaper interview hours before the meeting, Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, said he shares the pontiff's concern for the Middle East's dwindling Christian communities, in particular those in Iraq where many continue to flee abroad and are often targets of Islamist militant attacks.

Benedict received Hariri at the Vatican Apostolic Palace where, "in an atmosphere of great cordiality," their talks focused on Lebanon and the broader situation in the Middle East, the Vatican statement said.

"Having then highlighted the need to find a just and global solution to the conflicts affecting that region, reference was made to the importance of intercultural and inter-religious dialogue for the promotion of peace and justice," the statement added.

The two leaders also recalled "the importance of the presence and activities of Christians in the country."

Hariri expressed "great appreciation for the contribution made by the Catholic Church for the benefit of all society, especially through her educational, health care and aid institutions."

The Lebanese premier also held separate talks with the Vatican's second-highest official, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. He also met with the Holy See's equivalent of a foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

In terms of Lebanon's constitution, the three highest state offices must be occupied by representatives from three different religious groupings, with the president a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

More than three years after the last war between Israel and Hezbollah, south Lebanon residents are bracing for new conflict amid Israeli warnings against both Hezbollah and its backer Syria.

"If you come back, we'll be waiting for you," the Shiite militant group warns Israel on a billboard near the southern village of Aita Shaab.

It was across the border from Aita Shaab that Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid in July 2006, provoking a devastating month-long Israeli offensive against Hezbollah strongholds in south Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburb.

The war killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

"We are afraid, of course," said Hayat, a resident of the southern village of Qana, which came under deadly bombardment in the 2006 war.

"Every day we hear news of a possible new war," she tells AFP from her terrace which overlooks the village cemetery.

She said she feared any renewed fighting would see even the heart of the capital Beirut bombed. "Where will we hide?" she asked.

Her neighbor Diba agreed that any new conflict risked being more devastating than 2006.

"If war erupts, Syria and Iran will participate too. Next time it will not be limited to Hezbollah."

Israeli officials have warned repeatedly in recent weeks that any attack by Hezbollah will meet with a tough response.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday accused Lebanon of allowing Hezbollah to develop its stockpile of weapons, which Israel estimates at some 40,000 rockets, a significant rise from the group's 14,000 rockets in 2006.

Last month, Yossi Peled, an Israeli minister without portfolio and a reserve army general, warned Israel was heading towards a new war with Hezbollah.

"We are heading toward a new confrontation in the north but I don't know when it will happen, just as we did not know when the second Lebanon war would erupt," Peled told Israeli radio.

In Aita Shaab, new houses and villas are under construction, visible to Israeli soldiers across the border.

But a third of the homes in village remain in ruins after the 2006 war. Farmer Hassan Srour's house was reduced to rubble. "We are rebuilding, and if war breaks out again, then we will rebuild again," the 39-year-old said.

"We have got used to occupation, war and destruction. Where are we expected to go? This is our land," he said.

Unlike in northern Israel, villagers in Aita Shaab are not building bomb shelters as they reconstruct their homes.

"What for?" said Srour. "In 2006, two of our neighbors were buried alive in their bomb shelters."

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has voiced fear of another "Israeli intervention" and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the next war would "change the face of the region."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned Israel that war against his country would turn into a wider conflict. "Israelis, do not test the power of Syria since you know the war will move into your cities," Muallem said on Wednesday.

His Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman retorted on Thursday that any war would cost Syrian President Bashar al-Assad his grip on power.

In the village of Yarin, Khaled and his wife Dima, who run a shop near the border, carry on with their daily lives amid the mounting war of words.

"This time with the first explosion we're packing our bags," Dima said, adjusting her black veil.

Akel Hammoud, from the nearby village of Beit Leef, said Hezbollah's fighters were prepared for any Israeli move. "Everything is ready," he said. "The weapons and equipment are there. All we need is anti-aircraft defense."

Meanwhile, Arab League Chief Amr Moussa said on Thursday that Arab countries would stand by Lebanon if it were attacked by Israel, adding that the situation between the two countries is tense.

"If a new attack or aggression is in the process of being prepared, they (Israel) will not get away with it easily," Moussa said after meeting with Foreign Minister Ali Shami. "We learned the lessons of 2006, and the Arab position is to stand by Lebanon."

Moussa did not elaborate on what he meant by the lessons of 2006 on what he meant by the assurance of support.

Israel launched a devastating air, ground and naval assault on Lebanon in July 2006 after guerrillas from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

The war killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

It also devastated much of the infrastructure in southern Lebanon, just across the border and a Hezbollah stronghold.

Moussa, who was wrapping up a two-day visit to Beirut, was speaking amid growing fears in Lebanon that Israel might again attack the country. While there have been harsh words thrown in both directions, senior Israeli officials have been at pains to insist that they do not want a conflict.

"There are not just threats, but thousands of violations of the border zone and of south Lebanon, which demonstrate that the situation is complex and tense," Moussa said.

He did not elaborate, but Israel warplanes frequently enter Lebanese airspace, despite Lebanese and United Nations protests.

In Damascus, Syria and France signed Saturday a joint declaration issued at a meeting co-chaired by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri and his French counterpart Francois Fillon, the official SANA news agency reported.

Both sides agreed to work on deepening bilateral relations and consolidating bilateral political, economic and cultural cooperation.

The declaration said that the relevant ministries in the two countries will deepen cooperation, with the priority given to the French Development Agency (FDA) in Syria to fund small and medium businesses, urban development and finance renewable energy studies.

According the declaration, the two sides stressed the importance of achieving peace and stability in the region, while Syrian and French prime ministers expressed their concern over the possibility that the peace process would reach a dead-end.

Syria and France also expressed their willingness to work with the international community to resume negotiations on all tracks in accordance with the UN relevant resolutions, Madrid conference and land for peace principle, hailing the efforts made by Turkey in the indirect talks between Syria and Israel.

The French Prime Minister Francois Fillon arrived in Damascus on Friday evening, starting his two-day official visit to Syria.

Syria and France on Saturday signed 11 agreements, documents and memos of understanding (MOU) on cooperation in the fields of aviation, culture, education, tourism, agriculture and economy, including the MOU on selling 14 Airbus planes to Syrian Air.

Fillon said world powers would have to take new action against Iran in the next few weeks if Tehran continues to reject Western proposals on its disputed nuclear program.

Fillon said he was worried by a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this week which said Iran may be working to develop a nuclear-armed missile.

"We have read the new report (on Iran) by the IAEA ... and it is very worrying," Fillon told a news conference in Damascus alongside his Syrian counterpart Otri.

"We proposed dialogue to Iran for several months and for the moment all the propositions have been turned down," he said. "If the situation does not change, we have no other solution but to look into new measures in the coming weeks."

The United States is leading a push for a fourth round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran because of suspicions it is secretly developing a nuclear arsenal.

Washington has been supported from fellow Security Council members Britain and France, while Russia, which has been more reluctant to impose more sanctions, has said it was now "very alarmed" by the IAEA report.

China has so far resisted imposing more sanctions.

Iran denies it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon and says the accusations of Western countries are baseless.

Syria, an ally of Iran, said Tehran was developing nuclear energy toward peaceful ends.

"Nothing justifies the fear over this issue," said al-Otri. "We think that it's a right ... of all peoples to have nuclear energy for civil purposes," he said, but added that Israeli nuclear arms were a threat to world peace.

"We still hope that the international community ... will apply the same criteria to everyone," he said.

Fillon also asked Damascus for assistance in preventing Iran making decisions which were "dangerous to world peace."

"Peace in the region comes via a change in attitude of the Iranian government," Fillon said.

For several years, the IAEA has been investigating Western intelligence reports indicating Iran has coordinated efforts to process uranium, test explosives at high altitude and revamp a ballistic missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers said Monday that they were running out of patience with Iran over its nuclear program, but that they would not bring in more sanctions without broad international support. EU states fear that Iran is using its uranium enrichment program to develop an atomic bomb, but they say that sanctions would only work if other major world powers, such as China, joined them under the United Nations' auspices.

"For sanctions to be enforceable, they have to have the broadest possible international support," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said after talks with EU counterparts.

"We can't accept any more time-wasting. We are worried, and I think the (UN) Security Council has to discuss this," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

Two weeks ago, Iran confirmed to the IAEA that it had ramped up its uranium enrichment program, in a move which outraged Western observers.

The latest IAEA report is "extremely worrying" and European states are now "in a position where even patience runs out," Germany's deputy foreign minister, Werner Hoyer, said.

EU foreign ministers in January debated what extra sanctions they could introduce if the UN were to ask for them, but left it to the New York-based body to make the first move - a stance they repeated on Monday.

"I don't want to undercut the discussions going on in the UN at the moment, because it's only by having an agreement with everyone ... including players like China, Brazil, India and Turkey that you can have an impact," Bildt said.

Frattini said that, even if the UN Security Council failed to agree on more sanctions, it would not be right for the EU to launch sanctions on its own, because they would not work.

"If (UN agreement) is not possible, we (should) be prepared to form an international group of countries large enough to guarantee that all the countries that are potentially concerned are involved," he said.

That list should include "Arab states, the Gulf states, Turkey, Latin America and India not only Europe and America," he said.