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Unrest in Lebanon

DW staff (nda)December 2, 2006

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier meets Palestinian President Abbas Saturday. But Steinmeier's visit to Beirut is in doubt after pro-Syria and Hezbollah supporters laid siege to government buildings.

Demonstrators show their support for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in BeirutImage: AP

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier continues his Middle East tour Saturday with meetings with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for talks on strengthening a fragile week-old ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and raising hopes of reviving the stalled peace process.

Steinmeier, who will attend the discussions with Austrian counterpart Ursula Plassinik and the European Union's top diplomat Javier Solana, arrived in the region on Friday for meetings with Gulf state and G8 officials in Jordan ahead of Germany's EU presidency which begins on Jan. 1.

The EU contingent's sit-down with Abbas comes hard on the heels of the president's talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jericho Thursday after which both called for a complete ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants.

The truce that has been in place since Sunday applies only to the Gaza Strip and not to the West Bank. It calls for Palestinian militants to stop firing rockets into the Jewish state in exchange for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip.

Since the ceasefire, however, Palestinian militants have fired rockets at Israel four times in violation of the agreement, prompting Israeli threats to resume its offensive.

Steinmeier to urge action on coalition agreement

Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Ramallah bei Machmud Abbas
Steinmeier will urge Abbas to heal the rifts in the PAImage: AP

Steinmeier is expected to reiterate comments made on Friday that the formation of a stabile Palestinian government would be the clearest sign yet to Israel that negotiations over a lasting peace could begin. Abbas's Fatah movement is currently in the midst of a power struggle with the militant Hamas over the failure to form a moderate coalition that could win international recognition and help end a foreign aid boycott.

Meanwhile, the next leg of Steinmeier's tour was thrown into doubt as the Lebanese cabinet of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora came under siege in Beirut after a massive demonstration on Friday led by the pro-Syrian group Hezbollah ended with thousands of protesters camping outside government offices. Steinmeier is due for talks with Siniora later on Saturday but the current protests may make that visit impossible.

Friday's massive show of force in central Beirut tightened the political deadlock in the country which has been in near-paralysis because of a fierce power struggle between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps.

Siniora government under peaceful siege -- for now

Libanon Demonstration in Beirut gegen Regierung Saniora Flaggenmeer
Image: AP

Crowds of protesters thronged the streets of the capital on Friday, calling for the ouster of the "corrupt" leadership and temporarily blocking access to Siniora's government headquarters.

The Siniora government, which has received strong public backing from Western and Arab states, pledged not to bow to the opposition led by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Some pro-government newspapers spoke of the beginnings of an attempted coup.

Hezbollah-led demonstrators set up tents and several thousand protesters were still camping early Saturday on at least two main public roads leading to Siniora's offices, after the blockade was eased to allow access from side roads.

The demonstrators said they will stay until the government gives in, and threatened to escalate their actions in the coming days.

The pro-Syria and Hezbollah demonstrations may also threaten Frank-Walter Steinmeier's expected trip to Damascus on Monday.

Damascus visit could ease tensions

Syrien Präsident Baschar el Assad in Damaskus
Assad's Syria could hold the key to peace in the regionImage: AP

His last scheduled visit to the Syrian capital in August was cancelled after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made statements condemning Israel and offered praise to Hezbollah for its war against the Jewish state this summer.

However, after stating Friday that Syria's involvement was integral to regional peace efforts, Steinmeier may use the opportunity to discuss Assad's influence in Lebanon and attempt to diffuse the situation. The German contingent, however, have no official appointments in Syria at this time.