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Lebanese president takes office; Hezbollah warns against disarming by force

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned the Lebanese government Monday not to use military force against the Shiite Muslim militant group.


BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned the Lebanese government Monday not to use military force against the Shiite Muslim militant group.

His warning, a day after a new Lebanese president was elected, appeared to draw the line for the new government. President Michel Suleiman said Sunday in his inauguration speech there needs to be a dialogue over the future of Hezbollah's arsenal but praised the guerrillas' fight against Israel.

Nasrallah spoke to supporters Monday for the first time since Hezbollah fighters seized several areas of Beirut earlier in the month, forcing the government to agree to a political deal that strengthened the group's role in the government. He pledged to comply with an article in the Arab-brokered agreement that forbids the use of arms to achieve political gains.

But he said in the speech by videolink to tens of thousands of people in south Beirut that the state's weapons should not be used against Hezbollah or its opposition allies.

"The resistance weapons should not be used to achieve political gains," he said.

But at the same time, he added, "the state's weapons should not be used to settle accounts with an opposition political party, or in favour of outside parties that weaken Lebanon's strength and immunity in confronting Israel."

Celebratory gunfire erupted across south Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, as he spoke.

Nasrallah said his group was not interested in seizing power in this multi-sectarian nation of four million.

"We don't want power. We don't want to govern Lebanon or impose anything on the Lebanese people because we believe that Lebanon is an exceptional, diverse nation," he said.

Nasrallah predicted that Lebanese prisoners held by Israel would be released "very soon." He did not elaborate, but in March he had said that UN-mediated negotiations were continuing.

Israel is believed to hold seven Lebanese, while Hezbollah has two Israeli soldiers it captured in a July 2006 attack that triggered a monthlong war.

Nasrallah's speech on the eighth anniversary of Israel's troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon came on the same day Lebanon's new president assumed office.

Military bands and a guard of honour salute greeted Suleiman as he entered Lebanon's presidential palace to begin the monumental task of uniting a wounded nation and reconciling its rival political factions.

He set to work immediately, scheduling consultations with legislators on Wednesday to begin forming a new government, an official in the president's office said on condition of anonymity.

Suleiman was greeted by applauding staffers on a red carpet at the palace in hilly Baabda near Beirut, rather than by an outgoing president as is normally the custom. Lebanon has been without a head of state since November, when Emile Lahoud left office without a successor.

The election is the first tangible step in the deal to end the political crisis that erupted this month into the worst violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

Earlier Monday, Suleiman bid farewell at Beirut's airport to the emir of Qatar, who brokered a deal among Lebanese politicians last week that led to the election. Parliament had failed to elect a new president 19 times over the past six months.

"I call on you all, people and politicians, for a new beginning," Suleiman said after he was sworn in Sunday. "Let us be united."

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Monday praised the deal that ended Lebanon's crisis, saying "the implementation of the agreement guarantees calm and stability in the region."

Iran is one of Hezbollah's strongest backers, and the United States has accused the Islamic country of interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs. Mottaki said Iran's role in Lebanon was "transparent" and insisted the U.S. was the one who was meddling.

He said Washington's standing in the region "has been greatly weakened," an apparent reference to the Hezbollah-led opposition gaining the upper hand in Lebanon and veto power in the next government. The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

In neighbouring Syria, President Bashar Assad discussed the situation in Lebanon in two separate meetings with Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al Thani, the state-run news agency SANA said.

Moussa told reporters after the meeting that the agreement in Lebanon provided an "ideal" opportunity to mend relations between Arab nations, which had been strained by the crisis in the country. He described Syria's role in supporting the Lebanese agreement as "important and decisive."

 
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