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Lebanon’s new prime minister insists on neutrality in Syrian conflict

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Lebanon’s premier-designate Tammam Salam told AFP on Saturday that he supports the freedom of the Syrian people while insisting his country remain neutral in its neighbour’s civil war.

“My position is that I am on the side of the Syria people; I support the freedom and the sovereignty of the people,” Salam said, hours after being named by President Michel Sleiman to form a new government.

Salam, the 67-year-old scion of one of Lebanon’s grand political families and whose father was six times premier, met with AFP at his home in Moussaytbeh, in west Beirut.

Echoing remarks he made in a first address to the nation after being chosen to replace outgoing premier Najib Mikati, he said he favoured a “policy of disassociation” from the war in which rebels aim to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But he said this strategy can only be effective if all parties in Lebanon adhere to it.

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“We will work… to distance Lebanon from all the negative repercussions” of the war in Syria, he said.

In his earlier speech, he said “there is a need to bring Lebanon out of its state of division and political fragmentation, as reflected on the security situation, and to ward off the risks” from the Syrian conflict and regional tensions.

Lebanon was dominated politically and militarily by Syria until 2005, and the Assad regime still holds great influence over Beirut through the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and other allies.

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The country is sharply divided over the conflict in Syria.

The Western-backed, primarily Sunni Muslim, opposition from which Salam hails supports the Syrian rebels, while Hezbollah backs the Assad regime.

There have been deadly clashes within Lebanon, mostly in the northern port city of Tripoli, between backers and opponents of Assad.

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Armed elements from Lebanon have crossed the border to join the fray on both sides, and Lebanese border villages have occasionally been the target of fire from Syria.

While the Mikati government also officially took a neutral stance toward the Syrian conflict, some ministers close to Hezbollah openly expressed their support for Assad.

“There is no doubt that the policy of disassociation is a good one for Lebanon,” Salam said, “so long as it is followed to the letter.”

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“The different parties should commit themselves to that and not adopt difficult positions.”

Salam, known for his moderation, took a diplomatic tack when turning to the question of the arsenal held by Hezbollah’s militia, long a subject of discord between the two rival camps.

“I am with the (anti-Israeli) resistance when it is pointed in the right direction and when it is a matter of defending Lebanon,” Salam said.

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But “when that arsenal is turned toward the inside of the country for the purpose of influencing the (political) balance, that is straying from the resistance.”

Turning to the difficult task of forming a new cabinet, Salam refused to commit himself whether he would seek a government of national unity, as favoured by Hezbollah.

He said the priority would be to hold legislative polls, which are scheduled for June but for which a new electoral law has yet to be agreed.

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[Image via Agence France-Presse]


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