Sultan Qaboos, Lebanese PM Hariri discuss situation in Lebanon, regional developments

Sultan Qaboos receives U.S. defense secretary

Lebanese President Sleiman resumes consultations with political leaders in search of solution

Lebanon lodges complaint with UN over Israeli spying devices

Bellemare reiterates rejection to reveal Hariri probe developments

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri held talks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman at the Bait al-Baraka Palace in Muscat on the latest regional and international developments and bilateral relations and ways to develop them.

The meeting was attended by Minister of Information Tareq Mitri, Minister of State Michel Pharaon, the Lebanese Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman Afif Ayoub, former MPs Ghattas Khoury and Bassem Sabeh, and advisor Hani Hammoud from the Lebanese side, and the Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah and the Ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman to Lebanon Mohammad bin Khalil al-Jazmi.

"We see that there is a possibility of signing agreements between the two countries as soon as possible," Hariri said after the talks.

Asked about the nature of these agreements, Hariri said: "We hope they will be in all sectors, including agriculture, education, economy, tourism and all the issues that interest both countries and we hope that cooperation will take place in all these fields."

Hariri added: "We stress the importance of the historic relations between the two countries, and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos stood by Lebanon during all the difficult periods that Lebanon experienced and we hope to develop this relationship between the two countries."

Asked about the issues he discussed with Sultan Qaboos, Hariri said: "We discussed the challenges facing the region and those facing Lebanon, especially the Israeli threats. We also discussed the Arab Peace Initiative and all the regional and bilateral issues."

Hariri and the accompanying delegation had arrived at the Royal airport for a two-day official visit to the Sultanate.

They were greeted by the Omani Deputy Prime Minister for Cabinet Affairs Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said, a number of ministers, ambassadors of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and senior military personnel.

Hariri and al-Said headed to the VIP Salon where they held a meeting in the presence of the Lebanese delegation.

Bilateral agreements will be signed between Lebanon and Oman in a number of fields, Hariri said in a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister of Oman Fahd bin Mahmoud Al Said.

The agreements will include cooperation in agriculture, education, economics, tourism, and other areas, Hariri said following talks held in Muscat, according to a statement from Hariri’s office.

Lebanese and Omani ministers will meet to plan the agreements, he added.

Hariri arrived in the Sultanate of Oman for a two-day official visit.

Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Oman for talks with Sultan Qaboos on Iran’s disputed nuclear program before heading to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast.

The talks were expected to cover international concern over Iran, the growing terror threat in Yemen, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior US defense official told reporters.

The visit was mainly a courtesy call as Oman celebrates the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Oman, which has good relations with both the US and Iran, played a key role in brokering the release of one of three US hikers accused by the Tehran government of straying from Iraq into Iran’s territory.

Muscat has been pressing for the release of the two remaining hikers, held since July last year. The sultan has also appealed for a diplomatic solution to the long-running dispute over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. President Barack Obama’s approach stresses both diplomacy and “holding Iran’s feet to the fire with sanctions,” and Oman had a useful role to play on the issue, said the official, briefing reporters on Gates’s plane en route to Muscat.

“The sultan has been very proactive in pushing for a diplomatic solution and so that’s helpful,” said the official, who described Qaboos as “among the region’s most erudite and insightful leaders.” The main purpose of Gates’s visit, however, was to spend time on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, to get a first-hand look at operations in support of the war in Afghanistan, officials said.

On the other hand, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman held a new round of consultations aimed at breaking a political stalemate that has paralyzed the Cabinet while Lebanon is facing the threat of instability over an impending indictment into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He met separately with ministers of state Michel Pharaon and Adnan Sayyed Hussein as well as Professor Fayez Hajj Shahin.

The three are among the 19 leaders and politicians who make up the National Dialogue Committee, which has been meeting under Sleiman since last year to discuss a defense strategy designed to protect Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack.

Sleiman’s consultations are aimed at creating “an appropriate climate for ending the current stagnation,” a terse statement from the president’s office said.

The meetings were the third round of consultations he launched with rival leaders from the March 8 and March 14 camps aimed at ending the state of paralysis and resuming the Cabinet’s sessions.

In a statement after meeting Sleiman, Pharaon said he was ready to accept any initiative by the president to break the political deadlock over the UN-backed investigation and the indictment into Hariri’s assassination.

Referring to the March 8 camp’s boycott of the Cabinet sessions unless the controversial issue of “false witnesses” linked to the probe into Hariri’s assassination is addressed, Pharaon said: “Pressure on constitutional institutions and boycotting the president’s initiatives reflected the need for resuming dialogue inside [the country] to follow up the external dialogue, including the Syrian-Saudi dialogue.”

He added that a dialogue among rival factions must not be halted and replaced with “veiled threats pending the results of the external dialogue.”

Hajj Shahin said the president’s initiative was essential because the country cannot remain in a state of stagnation.

“Dialogue in Lebanon is not a luxury item. It is a must and it is the solution that has no alternative,” he said in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency (NNA) after meeting Sleiman. “Lebanon is founded on the coexistence charter. Coexistence means continued dialogue.”

Despite Saudi-Syrian attempts to find a solution to the Lebanese crisis over the indictment, Hajj Shahin said the Lebanese factions must find this solution. “We must decide our fate with our hands,” he said.

Sleiman’s consultations coincided with reports that the indictment, which is widely expected to implicate some Hezbollah members in Hariri’s assassination, would be released this month, further heightening political tension in the country.

The indictment will be issued by the Netherlands-based, UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating Hariri’s assassination.

Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir called on the Lebanese to close ranks, saying that Lebanon was going through “a critical situation.” He voiced support for Sleiman’s consultations with rival factions.

“The Lebanese must make up their minds and consult with the president so that they can emerge from the cycle in which they are revolving,” Sfeir said during a meeting with a delegation from the Voice of Lebanon radio station.

He reiterated his support for the UN-backed probe to achieve justice in Hariri’s assassination. “It is justice that ensures stability,” Sfeir said.

In another development, Lebanon lodged over the weekend a complaint with the United Nations over spying devices installed by Israel on Lebanese territories.

“Lebanon has filed today a complaint against Israel before the Security Council via its permanent mission at the United Nations in New York, after its [Israeli] troops remotely detonated spying devices that Israel had planted in Lebanon,” said a statement by Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry.

The statement said that Israel’s planting of spying devices “inside Lebanese territories constitutes a severe violation of Lebanese sovereignty and international law and to Security Council Resolution 1701.”

The Israeli Army detonated two of its espionage devices in southern Lebanon after Hezbollah discovered the equipment was being used to infiltrate its telecommunication network, a statement by the party said the same day.

Nabil Qaouq, the deputy head of Hezbollah’s executive council, said the latest attempt by Israel to infiltrate “the resistance’s telecommunications network in Wadi al-Qaysiyya near Majdal Silm is part of the ongoing war against the resistance via different means and additional evidence that Israel continues its aggression against Lebanon.”

“This aggression is not only against the resistance, but against sovereignty because sovereignty can never be divided,” he added.

Hezbollah said in a statement that “telecommunication technicians discovered an espionage device that the enemy planted on our telecommunication network in Wadi Qaysiyya outside of the village of Majdal Silm, and which the enemy detonated by remote control after we discovered it.”

Qaouq said Hezbollah’s discovery of the “infiltration attempt is an achievement for the country, the Lebanese people and the resistance.”

“Also, this attempt is evidence that the international community is unable to deter Israel and prevent it from continuing its aggressions against Lebanon,” Qawouq said during a ceremony in the southern village of Taybeh.

“The Security Council is unable to liberate itself from the complexities of satisfying America and Israel,” said the Hezbollah official.

Qaouq emphasized Hezbollah’s readiness to defend Lebanon against Israeli aggression. “This implies the resistance shall remain committed to the priority of protecting the country and its sovereignty,” he said, stressing that all internal disputes and divisions have not distracted the resistance from such a priority.

“We will not allow the enemy to take advantage of the political crisis to make gains at the expense of the country or resistance,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)’s spokesperson Niraj Singh said in a statement that a UNIFIL probe team headed to the area that saw the two explosions to determine what happened “and whether any violation to Resolution 1701 has occurred.”

The statement said that UNIFIL had intensified patrols in the area at night to maintain security in cooperation with the Lebanese Army.

In Leidschendam, the Netherlands, the prosecutor of the U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will issue his first indictment very soon, the court's new leader said.

Special Tribunal for Lebanon registrar Herman von Hebel gave no details about the content of the indictment, which will remain confidential until it is confirmed by a judge at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, likely early next year.

Tension over the tribunal has paralyzed Lebanon in recent weeks amid speculation prosecutor Daniel Bellemare will indict members of Hezbollah, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shiite militant group that controls a military force that is more powerful than the national army and part of Lebanon's fragile governing coalition.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was Lebanon's most prominent politician in the years after the 1975-1990 civil war. He and 22 other people were killed by a truck bomb on Feb. 14, 2005. At the time, he was trying to limit Syria's influence in Lebanon.

Von Hebel, a Dutchman who has previously worked at tribunals prosecuting crimes in Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, stressed that the Hariri court will indict individuals and not organizations.

"We are talking about individual criminal responsibility, not group responsibility," he told a small group of reporters at the court's headquarters, the day after the United Nations appointed him registrar for a three year term.

He said a pretrial judge will likely take six to 10 weeks to confirm all or parts of the indictment, or reject it if there is insufficient evidence. A trial could begin four to six months after an indictment is confirmed.

The indictment could remain sealed even after it is confirmed, if the court believes that would make arresting suspects easier, Von Hebel said.

The Hariri tribunal, like other international war crimes courts, does not have its own police force to arrest suspects. Unlike other tribunals, it has the power to try suspects in absentia if they elude arrest.

That will prevent situations like that of former Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, who remains on the run from justice 15 years after being indicted by the U.N. Yugoslavia tribunal for genocide.

The tribunal, based in a former intelligence agency headquarters in a village on the edge of The Hague is gearing up for its busiest year.

In an effort to streamline potentially drawn-out pretrial litigation, the judge confirming the indictment can ask the court's appeals panel to rule on key legal principles underpinning any charges.

"Undoubtedly there are legal issues here," Von Hebel said.

"The jurisdiction is partly based on Lebanese law so there may be questions in relation to that. What is the crime of a terrorist attack under Lebanese law, for example. These kind of issues may have an impact."

The U.N. recently approved the court's 2011 budget of $65.7 million (euro50 million), a 20 percent rise from 2010 because of anticipated extra staff needed as the court begins working toward its first trial.

Half of the budget comes from Lebanon's government and Hezbollah has said it may try to block funding, arguing that the court is unconstitutional because Lebanon's Cabinet approved it in 2006 after the resignation of five Shiite ministers.

Hezbollah and its allies say the government at the time was no longer legitimate because the constitution requires that "all sects should be justly represented in the Cabinet."

Von Hebel said that Lebanon failing to pay its half of the budget "would be a serious challenge."

The court, which employs 333 staff from 62 different countries, has a courtroom built in a former gymnasium at the court's headquarters and 12 cells ready in a special wing of a Dutch jail that also has wings for suspects detained by the International Criminal Court and Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.

Von Hebel said officials meet regularly with Dutch counterterrorism authorities to discuss security.

And while the court is focused for now on its first indictment, Von Hebel said more would be filed in the future.

Under the court's statute, the prosecutor also can investigate cases connected to the Hariri assassination since Oct. 1, 2004.