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Lebanon skirts crisis by tribunal payment

Lebanon averts a political crisis when its prime minister, Nejib Mikati, announce that its payment to the special tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri had been transferred.

BEIRUT // Lebanon averted a political crisis yesterday when its prime minister, Nejib Mikati, announced that its payment to the special tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri had been transferred.

The government had been split on whether to hand over the US$32 million (Dh117.5m) owed to the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) amid fears that it might collapse if an agreement could not be reached.

Questions remain about where the $32m has come from and how the money was dispersed without cabinet or parliamentary approval. Various reports have linked the money to the budget of the prime minister's office and the Higher Relief Committee.

Either way, the move avoided a showdown between political allies within the March 8-dominated cabinet.

A crucial cabinet session scheduled for yesterday, at which funding for the court was to be discussed, was postponed.

Mr Mikati addressed the issue in a televised speech, announcing that the money had been transferred to the STL yesterday morning, in a bid to "protect Lebanon".

He said he would refuse "to head a government that would disrespect international commitments".

He added: "Our obligation to achieve justice makes us more committed to the STL, as long as the tribunal is not biased and does not politicise the probe."

The STL yesterday welcomed Mr Mikati's announcement, but said that the funds had not yet been received. The STL had expected the money to be paid by the end of October.

Lebanon now avoids possible sanctions or having non-payment of its share of the STL budget reported to the UN Security Council.

The opposition March 14 coalition hit back shortly after Mr Mikati's statement. While the group welcomed that Lebanon's 49 per-cent share of the budget had been paid, it said that the money appeared to have been "smuggled" through a decision that circumvented the cabinet.

"We reject the method in which a national cause was handled in that it was tackled outside the cabinet," said a statement issued by the group that includes former prime minister Saad Hariri's Mustaqbal movement, Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces.

The opposition also said that it took the decision to fund the court to mean that the government now views the tribunal as legitimate.

A government official told the Associated Press that the money was transferred from a Lebanese government bank account at the Central Bank. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said Mr Mikati had been allowed to find a "practical mechanism" to secure the funds and avoid a political confrontation.

"It did the trick," he said. "Mikati succeeded in navigating the turbulent political environment and in doing so won a new political mandate."

During his speech, the prime minister also urged Lebanon's divided political groups to return to dialogue, headed by President Michel Suleiman.

Mr Mikati was backed for the position of premier - a post reserved for a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon's delicate sectarian power-sharing system - by Hizbollah and its allies in the March 8 coalition.

Both Hizbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement - which has the largest single bloc in the 30-member cabinet - have opposed the work of the Netherlands-based court.

However, Mr Mikati has remained committed to co-operating with the STL. Last week, he even hinted he would resign if an agreement on funding could not be reached.

Differences over the STL have developed into one of the most divisive issues within Lebanese politics. In January, Saad Hariri's government collapsed after the resignation of several ministers who opposed co-operating with the court investigating the murder of his father.

In June, four Hizbollah supporters were indicted by the STL for allegedly taking part in the February 2005 assassination of Hariri, a former premier. The Shiite movement has denied any involvement and described the tribunal as a politicised conspiracy.

The four men - named in the indictment as Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra - have yet to be apprehended.

The court recently decided to await further information from Lebanese authorities on their efforts to arrest the men before starting in absentia proceedings against them.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press

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