Recent developments in the region until December 1

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman: My master and brother Prince Sultan, may he rest in peace, was of good insight when it comes to selecting good men

London closes Iranian embassy, expels all diplomats

Saudi Arabia denounces storming of British embassy in Tehran

Lebanon pays its share of funds for STL

First phase of Egyptian parliamentary elections finished as violence erupts in Tahrir Square

King of Morocco names moderate Islamist as prime minister

King Hamad of Bahrain sacks national security agency chief

SAUDI ARABIA:

Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Defense, accompanied by Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Minister of Defense, visited Kharj Region Command.

Prince Salman was also accompanied by Prince Ahmad bin Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and Prince Bandar bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Upon arrival at the venue, they were received by the Governor of Kharj, Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz; the Chief of General Staff, General Hussein Al-Qabil; the Director General of the Office of Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Abdulrahman Al-Bunyan; and Commander of Kharj Region, Major General Abdullah bin Mohammed Al-Amer.

Prince Salman was briefed on the Region's Command and he toured the base's supplies and major maintenance.

Prince Salman Wednesday toured a number of military facilities in Al-Kharj, including Prince Sultan Air Base - the largest in the Middle East, and said he would continue efforts to strengthen the Armed Forces.

“I will exert my efforts to complete the work done by my brother the late Prince Sultan (Former Defense Minister) in developing the Armed Forces,” Prince Salman said.

He also underscored the combat readiness of the Saudi Armed Forces in terms of training and armament.

“I am happy to say that all these military facilities are well organized and I am really impressed by the spirit of giving shown by the Saudi Officers there. It proves that the late Prince Sultan had picked the best men,” Prince Salman said while speaking at a reception held on the occasion.

He referred to his visits to the 4 major divisions of the Armed Forces in Riyadh. “I am proud of what I have seen. I am happy to say we have dedicated and well trained men in all these sectors to carry out their mission.”

Prince Salman also said that he was delighted to see officers of different sectors working as one team. The Minister pledged all support for Armed Forces personnel to meet their needs. He described Al-Kharj as one of the oldest military regions of the Kingdom.

While visiting the Prince Sultan Air Base, he wrote in the visitors’ register that the base’s achievements reflect the Saudi Forces “combat preparedness and continuous training to support the Kingdom’s integrated defense system.”

He witnessed the performance of some of the advanced fighter jets.

At the General Organization for Military Industries, Director General Major General Abdulaziz Al-Hodaithy, briefed Prince Salman on the organization’s facilities. “Our organization has been providing logistical and technical support to all sectors of the Defense Ministry,” he said.

Salman’s visit covered factories for military tanks and armed vehicles and G36 guns.

He also opened a new factory for light ammunition. Prince Salman commended the organization’s role and said it has been playing a great role in meeting the various requirements of the military including weapons, ammunitions, equipment and uniforms.

Prince Salman earlier visited the military supply and maintenance center in Al-Kharj, which is fully manned by Saudi experts. He also watched a documentary on the center for the development of Land Forces.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has deplored the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran, which is considered incompatible with the norms of human ethics, and international laws, including the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

This came in a statement read by a Spokesman of the Foreign Ministry.

The source said that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose diplomatic missions have suffered of these repeated attacks, confirms the risk of such assaults for all diplomatic missions, without exception, and the need for strict adherence to international agreements and conventions, which guarantee the inviolability of diplomatic missions and the safety of its employees.

YEMEN:

At least 11 suspected al-Qaeda militants were killed in Yemen's southern province of Abyan in clashes that erupted Tuesday night and continued for at least 14 hours, according to officials and local residents.

A senior security official in Abyan said that government troops shelled militants' hideouts to force them out of Abyan.

"The province turned into a gathering point for terror militants over the last five months. Fighters continue to arrive to Abyan from everywhere," said the security official, who is not authorized to talk to media.

He added, "Clashes with the militants were strong over the last four days -- and troops will not step down until the entire province is back in the hands of the government."

Eyewitnesses in the area confirmed that at least four of the killed were foreign fighters, one of them from Saudi Arabia.

"Because clashes were in the middle of the town, the bodies of foreigners laid on the roads for hours," said Abdullah Abu Kareem, a local in Zinjibar.

Security officials in Abyan told CNN that at least 65 foreign fighters were killed in Abyan since May.

"They started entering the province in large numbers two months ago. Before that, nearly all of the al Qaeda fighters here were Yemeni," added Abu Kareem.

A senior defense ministry official confirmed that foreigners were among the killed over the last week but said they are in small numbers compared to the Yemeni fighters.

Eyewitnesses told CNN that clashes took place on main roads and destroyed property.

Yemen's security has been a worry for the international community for years, and has increased even more after the political stalemate in the country eased communication between terror networks in Yemen.

"Al Qaeda can still be dealt with in Yemen. It is not a great danger yet. However, if this file is not resolved soon, then al Qaeda could be a threat to not only Yemen but the entire region," said Mohammed Abulahoum, the president of the opposition Justice and Building party.

Ansaar al-Sharia, an extremist militant group with links to al Qaeda, took over large areas in Abyan province last May after government forces evacuated hundreds of troops from their original posts.

More than 100,000 residents left the province months ago and are living in shelters in neighboring Aden and Lahj provinces.

The UN Security Council this week welcomed the new political agreement in Yemen and the mechanism outlining how it can be implemented, but stressed that the deal must be strictly implemented to end unrest and restore stability in the country.

The peace initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the implementation mechanism agreed to on Wednesday must be carried out in “in a serious, transparent, and timely manner, and in a spirit of inclusion and reconciliation,” the Council said in a press statement.

The Council expects the parties “to honor the timetable set out in the agreement, including the formation of a government of national consensus, presidential elections within 90 days, a national dialogue, a constitutional review, and a program of reforms that start to tackle the profound humanitarian, economic and security challenges that Yemen faces.”

In the statement, read out by Ambassador José Filipe Moraes Cabral of Portugal, which holds the Council’s presidency this month, the 15-member panel reaffirmed its commitment to Yemen’s territorial integrity and unity, and urged all parties to reject violence, refrain from provocation, and fully implement the Council’s previous resolution on restoring peace in the impoverished country.

It reiterated that all those responsible for violence, human rights violations and abuses should be held accountable, and deplored acts of violence that occurred on Thursday, when five people were reportedly killed in the capital, Sana’a.

The Council stressed the need for increased and unimpeded humanitarian access, and urged all Yemeni parties to work with the UN, the international community and the GCC to achieve lasting peace, stability and reconciliation.

Earlier, Jamal Benomar, the UN Special Adviser on Yemen, told reporters after briefing the Council that the accord paves the way for a credible transition and provides a detailed roadmap for change through the broad participation of citizens.

“The implementation envisions meaningful participation across the full political spectrum, including the youth who paved the way for this change in the political order,” Benomar said of the pact.

“It is imperative that the new Government of National Unity engages with all constituencies including the youth, the Houthis, and the Hirak movement in the south,” he said.

Under the accord, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to hand over his powers to Vice-President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi and presidential elections are to be held within three months.

“All Yemenis will now need to come together to reconcile, and to tackle the difficulties that lie ahead,” he said, noting that “violence and unrest has continued despite the reaching of a political solution on 23 November.”

He said he had told the Council that all Yemeni parties will need to take responsibility and use the opportunity to foster positive change for the country, uphold human rights and desist from further violence.

Benomar urged the international community to step up support for Yemen’s recovery, as requested by both parties to the agreement. The UN and the rest of the international community will monitor the accord’s implementation and remain engaged, he said.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remained fully committed to supporting the transition and the post-election period through mobilizing the entire UN and Member States to help Yemen address its political, humanitarian, security and economic challenges, Mr. Benomar added.

The Council was also briefed on the humanitarian situation in Yemen by Philippe Lazzarini, the Deputy Director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Last week’s political agreement followed months of deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of Mr. Saleh and his regime, part of the so-called Arab Spring movement that has swept the Middle East and North Africa this year.

BAHRAIN:

King Hamad of Bahrain has replaced the head of the country's security agency following an inquiry into the crackdown on protesters earlier this year.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdullah, a member of the ruling family, has been moved to another senior security role.

The inquiry, published last week, found that "excessive force" had been used against pro-democracy protesters.

More than 40 people died during Shiite-led protests in February and March.

Abel bin Khalifa Hamad al-Fadhel has been named as the acting security chief, while Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdullah was appointed secretary general of the Supreme Defense Council, an official statement said.

Bahrain's Independent commission of Inquiry was set up after the country faced international criticism of its handling of the protests, which have continued sporadically.

The majority of the population of the Gulf state is Shiite Muslim and the violence has fuelled anger against the ruling Sunni royal family and political elite.

More than 1,600 people have been arrested since the start of the protests. The commission found that many detainees had been subjected to "physical and psychological torture" and their basic human rights were violated.

Meanwhile, Bahrain condemned this week’s storming of Britain's embassy in Tehran, voicing "deep concern" over the attack and describing it as an "unacceptable" violation of international laws on protection of diplomatic missions.

The Foreign Ministry slammed the attack, calling upon the Iranian government to take immediate measures to ensure the safety of British diplomats and protect other diplomatic missions, as stipulated by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Meanwhile, Britain shut Iran's embassy in London and expelled all its staff, saying the storming of its mission in Tehran could not have taken place without consent from Iranian authorities.

Foreign Secretary William Hague also said the British Embassy in Tehran had been closed and all staff evacuated.

Iran warned that Britain's closure of the Iranian embassy in London would lead to further retaliation.

France recalled its ambassador from Iran and said it would push for tougher sanctions at a European Union foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels this week.

The meeting will map out Europe's response to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that suggested Iran has worked on designing an atom bomb.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed freezing central bank assets and halting oil purchases to press Tehran to halt its nuclear program.

KUWAIT:

Kuwait’s emir named outgoing Defense Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah as the new prime minister Wednesday, after the resignation of the government during the oil state’s deepest political crisis in years.

The emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, called on his nominee to form a government, in a decree carried on the official state news agency KUNA.

The move comes two days after the Cabinet resigned following the storming of parliament earlier this month by protesters and opposition deputies demanding the then-prime minister quit over corruption allegations.

Parliamentary sources told Reuters Wednesday they expected the ruler would now dissolve parliament within the next few days, and call for elections, with the new Cabinet serving as a caretaker until the vote.

Kuwait, an OPEC oil-producer, has tolerated criticism of its government to a degree rare among its Gulf neighbors, helping to insulate it from the protest-driven political tumult that has helped topple four Arab leaders this year.

But tensions rose sharply this month when opposition lawmakers and protesters stormed parliament to demand the resignation of the outgoing Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, a nephew of the emir.

“Most of the lawmakers are still demanding the [parliament] dissolution, because it has already lost its credibility among the citizens after it has been plagued by corruption,” said Ahmad al-Dayeen who is a liberal political columnist.

Kuwait has been locked in a long-running political battle between the government dominated by the ruling al-Sabah family and the 50-member elected parliament.

The standoff between parliament and the government has pushed Kuwait from one political crisis to the next and delayed key economic reforms and projects.

Since Sheikh Nasser became prime minister in 2006, seven Cabinets have been rejigged and the emir has been pushed to dissolve parliament and call early elections three times.

PALESTINE:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni met in the Jordanian capital on Wednesday for talks about the peace process, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.

A statement from Abbas's office carried by state news agency WAFA confirmed the meeting in Amman and said the Palestinian leader used the talks to stress his support for negotiations.

Abbas told Livni that "the option of peace and negotiations was the only way to achieve the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with the resolution of final status issues including Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements and security," the statement said.

Livni's Kadima party issued its own statement on the meeting, saying the Israeli lawmaker had told Abbas to return to negotiations.

The statement said she had also criticized the Palestinian bid for UN state membership and warned that reconciliation talks between Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas would allow the Islamist group to "impose its agenda."

"Do not let Hamas impose its agenda by forming a joint government," the statement quoted her as telling Abbas. "With them you have no chance for peace."

"Now, before forming a government with Hamas, in the face of the changes in the region and instead of unilateral moves at the UN, it is necessary to open negotiations before it is too late and I call on you to do it before it is too late."

"The Middle East is changing and the deadlock serves the extremists who exploit the dispute on the streets of the Arab world. We need to act now in partnership against the extremist Islamic forces."

The statement from Abbas's office said he assured Livni that the next Palestinian government, to be formed ahead of elections within a year as called for by the unity deal with Hamas, would be a moderate one.

The government will be composed "of technocrats and independents and... will accept previously signed agreements, the principles of two states, be committed to peace and will renounce violence," he told Livni.

Abbas also reiterated his insistence that negotiations must be based on the "obligations" of both sides under the Road Map, a 2003 framework for negotiations to reach a peace deal, the statement said.

"The president stressed the obligations of both sides to implement what is required of them under the first phase of the Road Map, including a halt to settlement construction and accepting the 1967 borders as the basis for talks."

Livni was accompanied by three other Israeli political figures, Tzachi Hanegbi and Haim Ramon, both ex-members of parliament, and Roni Bar-on, a Kadima lawmaker, the Kadima statement said.

MOROCCO:

The leader of an Islamist party that has never before participated in Morocco’s governments was chosen by the king as the country’s new head of government Tuesday.

The Justice and Development Party won the most votes Friday in a national election prompted by the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept this North African kingdom of 32 million earlier this year as part of the regionwide “Arab Spring.”

King Mohammad VI received Abdelilah Benkirane, the secretary-general of the Justice and Development Party, in the mountain town of Midelt Tuesday and named him head of government with the task of forming a governing coalition.

It would have been unthinkable just a year ago for a member of the opposition PJD to lead the government, but the Arab Spring movement forced the king to reform Morocco’s constitution and hold early elections.

Under the amended constitution, the prime minister is now a more powerful “head of government” and he must come from the party that won the most votes in the election.

The PJD took 107 seats out of the 395 in parliament, almost twice as many as the second-place finisher.

With its outsider status, the PJD is expected to test the limits of the newly empowered prime minister’s position.

The party is considered quite “moderate” on the spectrum of Islamist groups and it has not focused on issues like the women’s headscarves or the sale of alcohol in a country that relies heavily on tourism from Europe.

Morocco’s opposition party has instead talked about fighting the rampant corruption, reforming the education system so it readies people for the job market, and combating the widespread unemployment.

With the fall or weakening of Western-backed secular dictatorships, people across North Africa have been turning to Islamist parties that have been in the opposition as an alternative.

The PJD’s victory follows that of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party in an election there last month. And voters in Egypt are currently turning out in droves for an election there that is expected to boost Islamist parties.

Benkirane, who was elected head of his party in 2008, leads its more conciliatory pro-monarchy faction and has repeatedly stated his support for a strong king, even while his colleagues would prefer a less powerful ruler.

“The head of the state is the king and no can govern without him. If someone can do it, it is certainly not Abdelilah Benkirane,” Benkirane told cheering supporters Sunday after election results showed his opposition party’s strong finish.

Only 6 million people out of a potential electorate of 21 million voted in Friday’s election and many boycotted out of disgust or apathy with what they perceive as a corrupt political system.

Politics in Morocco has long involved coalition governments made up of several weak parties, dominated by an all-powerful king and his unelected advisers.

Benkirane told the Associated Press in an interview before elections that the Makhzen, the code word for the royal establishment that controls all, must realize that the old games must change in the face of a new political environment.

EGYPT:

The release of results in the first round of voting from Egypt’s historic election is being postponed, the country's military rulers said Thursday.

The announcement will come Friday or Saturday, said Amir Imam, spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Two Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour Party, have claimed a lead in ballot counting, but officials are tight-lipped about any results.

The first voting since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak took place Monday and Tuesday, the first in a multi-step process to pick members of the lower house of Parliament.

Those lawmakers will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.

This week marked the first time some Egyptians -- young and old -- had ever cast ballots after three decades of rule under Mubarak, who was ousted in February after weeks of protests.

Some voters and human rights activists expressed hope that their votes would actually count for the first time, though some boycotted the elections saying they don't trust the voting will be free and fair.

Many Egyptians had gathered in public places Thursday, looking forward to hearing and discussing the results of the elections, and they were disappointed when word came down about the delay.

"I think it's bad," said one young man. "I think maybe some problems have happened, [but] they don't want to tell us about [them]."

But another young voter said she believes the authorities simply "wanted more time to sort out things...They don't want to rush things up, they want something to be accurate."

It's quite possible that the Islamist parties did gain a majority in the initial voting. The Muslim Brotherhood has been active for years, working with poor families and providing social services.

Some voters who supported those parties tell CNN they want to give those groups a chance but will also hold them accountable in another parliamentary election within a few years.

If the Islamist parties win the majority, key questions arise about how they will use their strength -- particularly whether Christians and secularists will have their interests recognized as well, CNN's Jim Clancy reported from Cairo.

It is "of vital interest to people to see that all voices are combined," Clancy said.

In advance of the election, there were reports of some illegal campaigning taking place, with the Egyptian Association of Human Rights alleging some cases of vote-buying in the city of Alexandria.

An Egyptian security official says about 80 people were hurt when clashes erupted between protesters and angry street vendors at Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The violence broke out after polls closed on Tuesday night following the first two days of voting in Egypt's parliamentary elections.

The protesters, who have camped out for more than 10 days at the square demanding Egypt's military rulers step down, tried to clear the area of street vendors, who brought in thugs and hurled stones and fire balls back.

After the clashes subsided early Wednesday, the protesters lined up metal barricades and dumpsters to protect their camp.

The official says the injured were taken to hospital. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Egypt's military rulers were quick to take credit Tuesday for a strong turnout in the first elections since Mubarak's ouster, a vote that appeared to be the country's freest and fairest in living memory.

The military did not field candidates in the parliamentary vote.

But winning bragging rights for a smooth, successful and virtually fraud-free election would significantly boost the ruling generals in their bitter struggle with youthful protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square calling for them to transfer power immediately to a civilian authority.

"When we plan, we execute and, at the end, we succeed," Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling military council, said in a television interview. He compared the elections to one of the Egyptian military's proudest moments — when they battled Israeli forces across the Suez Canal in 1973.

"The armed forces pulled off this election like they pulled off the crossing in 1973," he said.

Even before two days of voting began Monday, protesters were accusing the military of trying to cling to power and safeguard its interests under any future government. Now, they warn the ruling council will try to use the success of the election to cement its hold on power.

Already, the ruling council's perceived success seems to have taken the wind out of Tahrir protests, at least temporarily. The square that was the center of the anti-Mubarak uprising had as many vendors as protesters on Tuesday. Several small groups of older men intensely debating politics was the only sign of political activity.

"I voted yesterday and returned to Tahrir. I found it empty except for the vendors," said Samer Suliman, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo and one of the founders of the Social Democratic party.

"I think the military won big from the elections," he added. "The soldiers at the polling stations with their big smiles and politeness are giving the impression to the people that they are carrying the country on their shoulders. No doubt that they are dancing right now."

The generals, who took power after the 18-day uprising that pushed Mubarak out, were clearly hoping their successful shepherding of election would deflate the wave of protests against them that erupted 10 days ago. The protests, which drew more than 100,000 people in Tahrir at their height, galvanized growing anger among some who accuse the military of perpetuating the old regime's autocratic rule.

Etman estimated the turnout for the first round of voting at 70 percent and the head of the elections commission said it was "massive" but gave no figures. There will be two more rounds of voting for a parliament in the coming months and a series of run-offs. The process will not be completed until March.

Another member of the ruling council, Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla, called the turnout "unprecedented in the history of the Arab world's parliamentary life."

Egypt's state media lavishly praised the military as the guardians of democracy, splashing on their front pages pictures of troops protecting polling centers or soldiers carrying elderly women to the polls.

"The ballots of the freedom parliament under the protection of the army," announced a headline in Cairo's Al-Ahram Al-Masai'e.

Al-Mulla said the turnout was a message of solidarity from Egyptians to their armed forces.

"Our response to that message is: We are with you," he said as a small crowd of supporters gathered around him while touring polling centers in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, northeast of Cairo. "The army and the people are one hand," they chanted — invoking the mantra of the uprising earlier this year, when Tahrir protesters enthusiastically welcomed the military's takeover of power.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commended "the enthusiastic participation" of Egyptians in the voting and the calm and orderly manner in which it took place, deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.

But there are other frustrations playing into the hands of the military. Egyptians are increasingly impatient with the persistent protests, the deepening economic troubles and a crime surge. For many, it is the military, rather than the revolutionaries, who are best equipped to deliver the stability and security they long for.

"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces doesn't really want to be in power but they are the only ones keeping us from chaos," said 24-year-old Kareem Ahmed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. "I voted today for the stability of the country...Those in Tahrir don't represent me or the revolution and it is high time they just get out of the square."

But the die-hard protesters were not prepared to admit defeat.

Amie Sultan, 30, said going ahead with the election was an insult to the memory of the 43 protesters killed, mostly in Cairo, in last week's deadly clashes with police. Nearly 900 more were killed in the uprising earlier this year. "When innocent civilians are brutally murdered and their corpses are dragged into a pile of trash, then we, when we vote, are complying with the orders of the very people responsible for that."

Late Tuesday, fights broke out between food and tea sellers and activists who tried to kick them out of Tahrir Square, witnesses said. The two sides fought and threw rocks at each other on the square's northern edge. At least 10 people were lightly wounded, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

The success of the voting has also lent strength to the military's argument that it has a legitimate claim to power and it is sincere about its public assurances that it has no intention to keep ruling indefinitely.

The argument about whether the military council had a right to rule the nation has been at the heart of an ongoing battle of wills with the activists. The protesters say the military's legitimacy as rulers came from the square. In response, the generals have said Tahrir does not represent the whole of Egypt.

"I think the Tahrir people should leave," said Alexandria carpenter Mohammed el-Sayed minutes after the polls closed. "We should have enough trust in the army, After all, they proved themselves these past two days. We need stability now."

With such a small number left in Tahrir, there is talk of ending the sit-in.

Islam Lotfi, one of the founders of the Egyptian Current party that was born out of the uprising, said talks were already under way among youth groups to leave the square.

"We can't win all at once. We do it bit by bit," he said. "The streets and squares will remain a way to extract our rights. Popular pressure is needed."

LEBANON:

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Wednesday he had transferred Lebanon's share of funds for a UN-backed court probing the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, averting a crisis that threatened the collapse of his government.

"This morning, I transferred Lebanon's share of funding to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)," Mikati said in a surprise announcement.

"This does not constitute a victory for one party over another," Mikati told reporters. "This represents a gain for the Lebanese state and institutions.

"The dangers facing Lebanon required a courageous decision," he said.

Mikati last week had threatened to resign should his Hezbollah-dominated government refuse to fund the STL, a source of political tension in Lebanon since its creation. "I don't want to be head of a government that fails to honor its international obligations and pulls the country out of the Arab and international community," Mikati said.

A government official said the $32 million (24 million euros) sent to the Netherlands-based STL were drawn from the prime minister's office's budget and as such did not need cabinet approval.

"This was a decision taken by the premier after consultations with the president," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He said the funds were taken from the High Relief Council, which is under the auspices of the prime minister's office. The move appeared to be a face-saving measure for Hezbollah and its allies as it did not require a cabinet vote.

The STL has indicted four Hezbollah operatives for murdering Hariri and 22 others in a car bomb blast in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who has denounced the court as part of a US-Israeli conspiracy, has steadfastly pushed for Lebanon to cut all ties with the tribunal.

The Shiite party, which is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Washington, has also vowed that those accused will never be found or handed over.

A party official contacted by AFP declined comment.

The Western-backed opposition headed by Hariri's son and political heir, Saad Hariri, hailed Mikati's announcement, saying it amounted to tacit recognition of the court by Hezbollah and its allies.

"This is a clear and unequivocal victory for the current that never ceased to support the creation of the tribunal against another current that had denounced it as a US-Israeli tool," said Fares Soueid, secretary general of the coalition headed by Saad Hariri.

STL spokesman Marten Youssef welcomed the transfer of funds as did France and Washington, which also underlined that Lebanon's commitment to the court did not stop with the funding.

Ambassador Maura Connelly "noted that Lebanon's commitments... extend beyond the issue of funding alone and fulfilling these commitments are important indicators of the government's commitment to both Lebanon's interests and its international obligations," a US embassy statement said.

She was referring, among other things, to the STL's three-year mandate which is up for renewal in March and Lebanon's duty to track down and arrest those indicted for Hariri's murder.

Welcoming the move as well, US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said: "The Special Tribunal's work represents a chance for Lebanon to move beyond its long history of impunity for political violence. The Lebanese authorities' support for, and cooperation with, the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is a critical international commitment."

The French foreign ministry issued a statement also welcoming the transfer of funds and expressing hope that the tribunal will be able to carry out its work "in the best of conditions."

The Shiite Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon, toppled the government of Saad Hariri in January after he refused to stop cooperation with the court.

Lebanon is responsible for meeting 49 percent of the STL's financing, which amounted to 32 million dollars this year.

Mikati in recent weeks had come under intense international pressure for Lebanon to uphold its duties towards the court and STL president David Baragwanath visited the country to drive the message home.

The STL was created by a 2007 UN Security Council resolution at Lebanon's request. It opened its doors in 2009, tasked with trying those suspected of responsibility for Hariri's assassination.

It is the first international criminal tribunal with jurisdiction over terrorism offences and a mandate to try defendants in absentia if necessary.

LONDON:

Britain has closed its embassy in Iran and evacuated all its staff from that country following the attack on the embassy compound in Tehran Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday.

Iran has also been ordered to close its embassy in London immediately, with its staff given 48 hours to leave, Hague said in a strongly worded statement to the UK Parliament.

Protesters stormed Britain's embassy and a separate compound Tuesday in Iran's capital, sparking outrage in the United Kingdom. The buildings should have been guarded by Iranian security officers.

Some demonstrators proceeded to vandalize and loot the homes of staff and the ambassador's residence, destroy furniture, steal their property and set fire to the main embassy office building, Hague said.

"This is a breach of international responsibilities of which any nation should be ashamed," Hague said.

While relations between Britain and Iran have been strained in recent times, he said, "We should be absolutely clear that no difficulty in relations can ever excuse in any way or under any circumstances the failure to protect diplomatic staff and diplomatic premises.

"Iran is a country where opposition leaders are under house arrest, more than 500 people have been executed so far this year and where genuine protest is ruthlessly stamped on. The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy or that this assault could have taken place without some degree of regime consent is fanciful."

The majority of about 200 demonstrators who overran the city center embassy compound were members of a student Basij militia organization, he said, which is "controlled by elements of the Iranian regime."

Hague thanked those European and Arab nations that offered assistance to British Embassy staff following the incident.

British citizens still in Iran will be supported by other EU missions there, he said.

The United Nations Security Council, the United States, Germany, Poland, Russia and France have all expressed their concern over the incursion, which went against international law, he said.

Alistair Burt, British under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office, also accused Iran's government of being involved in the embassy incident on Wednesday, calling it a deliberate provocation.

"The people who were involved are known to have connections with elements of the regime," Burt told CNN.

IRAN:

A senior U.S. official has dismissed Iran's threats against NATO missile defense installations in Turkey ahead of a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to the key U.S. ally and linchpin of NATO's southern flank.

An Iranian general said Saturday that Tehran would target NATO's early warning radar in Turkey if the U.S. or Israel attacks the Islamic Republic after an International Atomic Energy Agency report said for the first time that Tehran was suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose was the development of nuclear arms.

Antony Blinken, national security adviser to Biden, told a teleconference briefing from Washington on Monday that "making threatening statements doesn't serve anyone's purpose, least of all the Iranians."

"Turkey shares our goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran," Blinken added, according to a transcript posted on the U.S. embassy website.

Ankara agreed to host the radar in September as part of NATO's missile defense system, which is capable of countering ballistic missile threats from its neighbor, Iran. Turkey insists the shield doesn't target a specific country but Tehran says the radar is meant to protect Israel from Iranian missile attacks if a war breaks out with the Jewish state.

The U.S. and its Western allies suspect Iran of trying to produce atomic weapons, and Israel, which views Tehran as an existential threat, has warned of a possible strike on Iran's nuclear program. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.

"Should we be threatened, we will target NATO's missile defense shield in Turkey and then hit the next targets," Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a senior commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard as saying on Saturday.

A military installation in the Turkish town of Kurecik, some 370 miles (600 kilometers) west of the Iranian border, has been designated as the radar site, according to Turkish government officials. The deployment in Turkey, the biggest Muslim voice in NATO, signals improving ties with Washington since the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Turkey also closely works with U.S. forces in NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya, though it is not directly involved in combat.

The deployment of the NATO radar in Turkey was "very important to the defense of all NATO countries against the growing missile threat that is emerging in the world," Blinken said. "We're very pleased that Turkey is standing up as a NATO ally to do that."

Under the NATO plans, a limited system of U.S. anti-missile interceptors and radars already planned for Europe -- to include interceptors in Romania and Poland as well as the radar in Turkey -- would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.

Russia sees the U.S. missile defense plans in Europe as a security challenge, even though Washington says they are aimed against a potential Iranian missile threat and can't pose a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent.

Biden was scheduled to meet Turkish leaders in Ankara on Friday, before traveling to Istanbul to attend the second Global Entrepreneurship Summit aimed at promoting entrepreneurship and facilitate innovation and private enterprise.

The summit continues the work of the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington in April 2010, the U.S. embassy said on its website.

Biden will later travel to Greece to meet with new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, who took office earlier this month.