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Talks on new Lebanese prime minister to start next week

The country's collapsed coalition government has been asked by the president to stay on in a caretaker role after Hizbollah ministers and their allies quit over a UN probe into the murder of the ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

BEIRUT // Lebanon was plunged into political turmoil on Thursday as a caretaker government stepped in after Hezbollah ministers and their allies quit over a UN probe into the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

The hard-won unity government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- son of the slain leader -- collapsed on Wednesday after months of wrangling between the premier and the militant group Hezbollah over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

President Michel Sleiman called on the government to continue in a caretaker capacity and was to launch on Monday consultations with parliamentary groups on appointing a new premier, who must be a Sunni Muslim in line with tradition.

The resignations of 11 ministers came after Saudi Arabia and Syria failed in their bid to defuse tensions over the tribunal and find a compromise between the two rival camps.

For months, Hezbollah has been pressing Hariri to disavow the Netherlands-based court, which is reportedly set to indict high-ranking members of the militant party in connection with Hariri's 2005 assassination.

The group has accused the tribunal of being part of a US-Israeli plot and has warned of grave repercussions should any of its members be implicated by the court.

Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the government formed in November 2009 at the exact moment Hariri was in Washington holding talks with US President Barack Obama on the crisis.

The 40-year-old Hariri has not commented on the walkout and was to meet later Thursday in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Analysts said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who holds 11 seats in the 128-member parliament, could play a key role in the formation of the new government depending on which camp he sides with.

Hariri's pro-Western coalition has 60 seats and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies have 57.

Jumblatt has been allied with Hariri but has moved closer to the Shiite Hezbollah in the past year.

"It is too early to say what I will do," Jumblatt told AFP on Thursday. "When the consultations on naming a new premier begin, we'll see."

An official close to the Hezbollah-led opposition said there was still a chance for the Saudi-Syrian initiative to succeed, in which case Hariri would easily be reappointed premier.

"If both sides agree to remain on that track, then no one can compete with Hariri," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP. "If they get off that track, then all options are open as far as other candidates for the premiership."

But Ammar Houry, a member of Hariri's parliamentary bloc, ruled out the nomination of any other candidate.

"Logically, there are no other candidates than Hariri and we expect him to be reappointed with a large majority of votes," Houry told AFP.

Analysts predicted a drawn-out crisis that could eventually spiral into violence.

"It's going to take many months, probably, to form a new government," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.

"On the downside, this could be the first step in a decline into other forms of tension," he told AFP.

Wednesday's cabinet collapse sparked a string of reactions from the international community, with the United Nations, Washington and France throwing their weight behind Hariri and the tribunal.

Neighbouring Israel slammed Hezbollah's walkout as an attempt to "blackmail" the international community and prevent the publication of the tribunal's indictments.

Iran in turn blamed the United States and Israel for the cabinet collapse, accusing them of "sabotage and obstruction".

The standoff between Hariri's camp and Hezbollah had virtually paralysed the government since its creation and prompted fears of sectarian violence similar to that which brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.

The 2008 unrest that left around 100 people dead was the culmination of an 18-month political crisis that erupted in 2006 after Hezbollah withdrew its ministers from the government.

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