Russia’s Medvedev tells Sleiman interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs unacceptable

President Sleiman sets up national dialogue committee

PM Hariri follows up regional, international contacts to deter aggression on Lebanon, asserts Israeli threats are serious

Lebanon's President Michel Sleiman on Thursday held talks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, in the first ever visit by a Lebanese head of state to Russia.

Medvedev, whose country is keen to preserve influence in the Arab world that dates back to Soviet times, described the visit as a "landmark event" in relations between Moscow and Beirut.

Characterizing the visit as historic, Sleiman praised Medvedev for his support of Lebanon and said the two sides had discussed signing a long-term military cooperation agreement.

"It is a framework agreement and is planned to be signed in the near future," added the head of Russia's military-technical cooperation agency, Mikhail Dmitriyev, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.

However there was no mention of past promises by Russia to deliver 10 MiG-29 fighter jets as a gift for the Lebanese military, an issue that had been discussed by the countries' defense ministers in December 2008.

Under the plan, the fighter jets would be modernized before delivery and the transport of the jets would be paid for by the Russian defense ministry.

Lebanese daily As Safir, quoting an official in Sleiman's delegation, said the president would be raising the possibility of the MiGs being replaced by other hardware better suited to the needs of the Lebanese military.

"The budget of the army cannot sustain the huge expenditures linked to the MiGs which require constant maintenance," said the official, who was not named.

Observers note that Russia has been seeking a wider role in Middle Eastern affairs, including efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Lebanon and Russia signed an agreement on military cooperation that includes MiG warplanes and Russian military aid to the Lebanese Army.

Sleiman also met with religious representatives and members of the Lebanese community in Russia. Also on the agenda, were meetings with the presiding officers of the upper and lower houses of Parliament, Sergei Mironov and Boris Gryslov, respectively; Patriarch Kirill of Moscow; the representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch to the Patriarchate of Moscow, Mgr. Niphon Saikali; and the grand mufti of Moscow, Sheikh Ravi Aineddin.

At the end of the visit he was to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Moscow.

The high point of the visit would be the signing of the security and military accord.

Characterizing the visit as historic, Sleiman praised Medvedev for his support of Lebanon and said the two sides had discussed signing a long-term military cooperation agreement.

“It is a framework agreement and is planned to be signed in the near future”, added the head of Russia’s military-technical cooperation agency, Mikhail Dmitriyev, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Under the plan, the fighter jets would be modernized before delivery and the transport of the jets would be paid for by the Russian Defense ministry.

Accompanying the president were ministers Elias Murr (Defense), Ali Shami (Foreign Affairs), Adnan Kassar (minister of State), Mohammad Safadi (Economy), Abraham Dedeyan (Industry), as well as the director-general of the Presidency, Naji Abou-Assi.

According to the Saudi daily Okaz, it appeared that Sleiman would not meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, for what were called technical reasons.

Observers noted the warmth of the welcome given to Sleiman, which may have reflected the concern shared by both governments about the regional situation.

The Lebanese president did not fail to stress the danger posed by the Israeli threats to attack Lebanon, or to underscore the danger of trying to resolve the issue of the Iranian nuclear program by forces.

On Thursday Sleiman and Medvedev launched a joint call for a just and comprehensive solution in the region in respect for UN resolutions pertaining to the region. In his discussions with Russian officials, Sleiman stressed no peace in the region in the absence of an equitable solution guaranteeing the rights of all sides, Lebanese sources said ahead of the visit.

Russia is also interested in the situation prevailing in Lebanon, and under this title a number of agreements would be signed during the president’s stay, notably military agreements on training sessions for members of the Lebanese security forces and on supplying military aid whose nature was not specified, the same sources said.

The agreements dealt with protocols guaranteeing military secrecy linked to 10 MiG-29 planes. It is uncertain when these planes will be delivered, which had been promised to Defense Minister Murr in 2008.

Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman announced Sunday the formation of the national dialogue committee of the country’s top officials and major political leaders but refrained from scheduling a date for the committee’s meeting, the first to take place since the June 2009 parliamentary elections.

“The president would send invitations to the members of the committee to hold a meeting at Baabda Presidential Palace on a date that would be decided later,” a statement by the presidency’s press office said.

The national dialogue committee is expected to resume talks over a defense strategy.

During previous rounds, the committee agreed to disarm Palestinian groups outside refugee camps, a step which would be followed with the disarmament of those within camps at a later stage.

According to the presidency’s statement, the committee included Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Phalange Party head Amin Gemayel, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt, Hezbollah’s Loyalty to Resistance bloc leader MP Mohammad Raad, former Premier and Future Movement bloc head MP Fouad Siniora, Marada Movement leader MP Sleiman Franjieh, and National Democratic Party head MP Talal Arslan and Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party boss MP Assad Hardan.

Also, the committee included MP and former Premier Najib Mikati, Deputy Speaker Farid Makari, Deputy Premier and Defense Minister Elias Murr, and Ministers Michel Pharaon, Mohammad Safadi, Jean Ogassapian, and MP Agop Bakradonian.

Representing the Roman Catholics, Sleiman named Dean of the Law Faculty at Saint Joseph University Fayez Hajj Chahine from Zahle city to take part in the committee.

Zahle city is home to the largest Greek Catholic community in Lebanon.

However, Zahle in the Heart bloc MPs condemned Sunday Sleiman’s decision and urged him to reconsider his choice, saying it provoked Zahle residents who democratically elected their representatives in 2009.

On the other hand, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said on Thursday that situation along the Lebanese-Israeli border remained relatively stable, and the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701 has been reassured.

Williams made the remarks after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, saying that the most recent report highlights that despite rhetoric, all parties have continued to reassure the United Nations of their commitments to the cessation of hostilities and full implementation of UN resolution 1701.

"While this is important and positive, it should not detract from the importance of working towards a permanent ceasefire as called for in resolution 1701," said Williams.

Resolution 1701 ended the 34-day conflict between Israel and Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah, and reinforces UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to conduct peacekeeping mission along the blue line, which now serves as the de facto border between the two countries after Israel withdrew in 2000.

Tensions raised earlier last month along the border as Israel warned that Lebanese government hold full responsibility for any violence from south Lebanon against Israel, while Syria said it would fully support Lebanon for any attack from Israel.

Williams said he will brief the UN Security Council next week on the latest report of the secretary general on resolution 1701.

Lebanon accuses Israel of violating its airspace on a daily basis, a breach of resolution 1701.

Williams also welcomed the decision of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to convene the national dialogue next week to discuss the issue of a national defense strategy and of the arms outside state control, saying that it is a long standing belief of the UN that this issue should be addressed through a Lebanese political process.

Lebanese national dialogue sessions have been held for seven rounds since September 2008, but nothing have been solved through it so far.