Lebanese President Catholicos Aram I Meet Amid Growing Tensions

ANTELIAS (Combined Sources)–On the evening of March 25–His Holiness Aram I held a lengthy met with President Emile Lahoud to discuss a line of issues concerning Lebanon’s volatile state.

During the past week–Holiness has also met with France’s Ambassador to Lebanon Bernard Emie–representatives of the countries opposition–as well as Prime Minister Omar Karame’s representative Sebouh Hovnanian.

In his meeting with Hovnanian–His Holiness stressed the importance of stabilizing the political situation of the country and organizing the upcoming parliamentary elections.

"Accordingly–if it would be difficult to form a national unity government presently–our proposal is that a government comprised of people trusted by the Lebanese communities be quickly established–in order for the political life in the country to normalize," he stressed.

A blast on Saturday ripped through an industrial property in the mainly Christian northeastern suburb of Bouchrieh injuring five people and setting at least six factories ablaze. The attack followed bombings on March 19 and March 23 that targeted two Christian strongholds–killing three people and wounding at least 10.

There was swift reaction to the blast from the international community.

Following a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Tokyo–French President Jacques Chirac said: "All those who try and create chaos in Lebanon will be caught and severely punished."

In a joint statement–Chirac and Koizumi insisted that "UN Security Council Resolution 1559 be fully implemented."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan–in his condemnation of the latest violence–said that the people of the Lebanon must be allowed to decide their nation’s future without intimidation.

The Secretary-General was "especially saddened that this latest attack–the third in Lebanon in only a week–was carried out on the eve of Easter–just as many of the nation’s Christians were preparing to attend mass," a spokesman of Annan said in a statement released on Sunday.

He called on the Government of Lebanon "to act rapidly to prevent the security situation from deteriorating" and urged all concerned parties "to do their utmost to safeguard Lebanon’s stability and national unity."

Meanwhile–US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Dibble reiterated US condemnation of the blast–saying Lebanon is under the international "microscope."

In an interview with Radio SAWA in Washington–Dibble said: "The international community is watching Lebanon very closely. The [Lebanese] population deserves to live free of fear in a non-violent atmosphere. We hope no other attacks will take place."

On Monday Lebanese opposition politicians continued to point the finger at the Lebanese security services controlled by the Syrian-backed government–accusing them of seeking to foment confessional unrest as Syria withdraws its troops from the country.

About 2,000 Syrian troops have pulled out of eastern Lebanon over the past week–a senior Lebanese security source said on Monday–bringing Syria a step closer to ending its 29-year military domination of Lebanon.

The source said small units in the eastern Bekaa Valley were going home–leaving behind a division of the Syrian army as well as scores of intelligence agents.

A Syrian-Lebanese military committee is due to meet next week to set a timeline for withdrawing the 8,000 remaining forces.

Facing immense international pressure and popular Lebanese protest–Syria has promised to withdraw all military personnel–intelligence agents and equipment it poured into Lebanon early in the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Damascus has completed the first stage of a two-phase withdrawal plan–pulling back to the Bekaa Valley and withdrawing more than a third of the 14,000 troops it kept in its tiny neighbor.

It pulled troops out of about a dozen positions in the Bekaa last week. On Sunday–it left its two largest and last anti-aircraft positions–the sources said.

Witnesses said soldiers in Mashghara and nearby areas on the southwestern edge of the Bekaa were packing up equipment on Monday. Trucks were being brought in to load the hardware.

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