The council of ministers is due to convene today at Baabda palace under P.Hrawi with 34 topics on the agenda. The council will finalize the draft budget for 1997 and refer it to the Parliament with its preamble. The parliament will start perhaps marathon sessions to debate it as from tomorrow and possibly until Saturday. Mr Hariri exerted much efforts at his meetings with House Speaker Nabih Berri in order to avert fiery debating and confrontation between the government and the parliament. The debating of the budget is going to be debating the government economical, financial, social policies.
Mr Hariri has also worked to disengage the debates from the public bickering between the speaker and the president. He has visited Damascus yesterday and held talks with V.P Khaddam, and recalling the occasion was social invitation to an Iftar, even though they discussed local and regional affairs, including some recent diplomatic signals that the peace talks would resume in not far time. The observers expect the talks in Damascus would help ease the strain on verge of the debates.
The 34 topics which are going to be discussed today include:
Minister of the displaced Walid Jumblat visited Bkerkeh yesterday and held talks with Cardinal Sfair who hosted him to a lunch. Three MPs including Antoine Andraos, Wadih Akel and George Dib Neemeh also Jumblat's adviser Ghazi Aridi accompanied Mr Jumblat. The rare meeting between the two political rivals centered on the turbulent issue of the displaced and their repatriation. Mr Jumblat said after the meeting that " the talks with Cardinal Sfair dealt with everything from the weather, the politics and the displaced. It was excellent and useful. Aley MP Antoine Andraos will be retained as supervisor of the displaced fund in agreement with Mr Hariri, because he has the experience and knowledge about all the matters that relates to the fund. Relations with Mr Hariri are normal and no problems exists".
Mr Jumblat's gift to the Cardinal was two books titled " The Historical Roots of the Lebanese War " by Yussef Ibrahim Yazbeck, and another titled "The Ethics of Life " by his father Kamal Jumblat. In exchange, the Cardinal's gift was a book titled "the Maronite Patriarchate, a message and history", written by father Michel Oweit. The National News Agency said the Cardinal has accepted an invitation to visit the Chuf area at the nearest possible opportunity. Special news said that Mr Jumblat is going to visit Bkerkeh whenever it is necessary to follow up the displaced issue, as both sides give priority to the repatriation process. Cardinal Sfair was quoted saying that enough financial resources should be allocated to the repatriation process which is necessary and useful.
Antoine Andraos, now the supervisor of the fund for the displaced and MP of Aley who presided the fund for four years, quoted saying in a press interview "the closure of the displaced dossier needs some $700 mn. The repatriation is sacred and should be far from politics also its more important than the marginal bickerings between officials. All parties are in agreement over financing the fund. The political stagnation starts when every party demand money for it's province. The shortage of money in the fund was not because of Hariri-Jumblat disagreement but because of the difficult liquidity , something natural everywhere at the end of the year. I wish Cardinal Sfair to visit Beit Eddine. Already L.L 64 bn transfer delivered to the fund and started to pay according to priorities. At Mreijeh in the Southern suburbs our record says 600 families are there but political interventions made it 3000. A new bill is expected to restore nearly $200 mn a year and that will help to resolve the displaced problem".
In another incident related to the displaced, six policemen including an officer were wounded yesterday, also five citizens too, when the riot police which was dispatched to the Qantari area clashed with the displaced residing temporarily there. The displaced residents tried to stop use of dynamite to construct a tunnel in the downtown Beirut, claiming that dynamiting will shake down their residences, and used stone throwing to halt both the workers and the police which came in to disperse. The clash continued for two hours until officials from the Hizbullah intervened and asked the protesters to stop. The displaced are asking the displaced fund to pay the compensations before their evacuation, and the displaced fund assured that a committee of engineers, assigned by the Governor of Beirut reported that dynamiting will not lead to the collapse of the buildings housing the displaced, and already 3 buildings which could have collapsed were evacuated before dynamiting the rocks which obstruct the constructions.
The fund has also said it is ready to pay the compensations, but some political parties are encouraging the displaced to exploit the issue and put pressure on the government for higher compensations. Hizbullah official Ghaleb Zeinab said the deployment of anti riot police provoked the residents and there should be quick solution before the situation gets worse.
Deputy speaker Elie Firzli accused yesterday prime minister Hariri of packing the intelligence branches with his supporters. Mr firzli said " another example of the farm like republic has come in the form of direct intervention in the intelligence branches, particularly, the State Security Force. Some 150 security men had been recruited for the force, but more recently the intervention of a key government official led to the recruitment of another extra 100 men known for their loyalty to that official. The 100 men were recruited in an illegal manner and at odds with normal practice as they sit only for oral exams ". He called on Col. Nabih Farhat, the director of the state security, to either cancel the exams and hold new ones to select recruits who should be chosen according to their qualifications, or otherwise he will call for abolishing the whole agency.
Jordanian information minister said yesterday that the Lebanese response to the Jordanian memorandum is rejected in form and content, adding that the Lebanese judiciary ,discovering after three years, that the Iraqi diplomats cannot be trialed because of their diplomatic immunity, is a story not convincing at all.
Prime minister Hariri said yesterday at an Iftar hosted to university graduates that " we have no water for anyone". We shall cut the interest rates to productive sectors such as agriculture, industry and tourism. Admits there are faults but in general the reconstruction drive is going ahead well . The government is ready to ensure jobs opportunities to all the graduates but in the private sector, because there is no such availability in the public sector at present. The government is seeking to encourage the investments in the productive projects. Cutting down the interest rates will ensure some $300 mn which will be in the disposal of those sectors in the form of new loans, such amounts will be raised annually to reach 2 $bn in the coming years and that is a method to create jobs for the youths.
Lebanon manpower could be recruited in the industrial sector if and when developed and that can be done through technical schools which are now a main focus of the government.
P.Elias Hrawi told his visitors yesterday that once the parliament finishes its four days budget debates, he plans to start working on the constitutional amendments and present it to the government for approval. The proposed amendments and insistence of the president to go ahead with it has sparked the public bickering with the speaker. Mr Berri has threatened to sabotage the government from inside, through the loyal ministers who will oppose the amendments. One of the visitors of P.Hrawi former deputy Rafic Chahine did not say whether P.Hrawi will propose, among other proposals to amend constitution, giving the president the power to dissolve the parliament, something mostly angering Mr Berri.
The General Labour Union reaffirmed yesterday it will reject any increases on fuel prices or any other vital commodity, warning the government of such policy, the union statement's said. It called the country's workers and all the popular groups to organise protests against any raise in fuel prices. It called also the MPs to carry on their duties and defend the rights of the Lebanese people and prevent the passing of any increase. The union recalled that in the summer of 1995, after the government increased the gazoline prices by 3000 L.L, in the pretext of covering scales of salaries for public teachers, there were strikes and demonstrations on July19 1995, and the union will stand against any such increase now as before.
Qatar minister of oil and industry is expected today in Beirut to meet officials here and discuss what projects his country will aid in compliance with the Friends of Lebanon's forum. A Qatari source said the visit by the minister was upon instruction of the prince of Qatar who met Mr Hariri lately in Paris. Lebanese ambassador in Qatar said Qatar is interested in the Lebanese skilled technical manpower and already opened the doors for the Lebanese to have entry visas, without restrictions, both for work or visit.
Told former premier Selim Hoss he is ready to deal positively with Hoss proposal calling for the formation of an inquiry committee to investigate accusations of embezzlement and corruption. He received yesterday a delegation representing the tobacco farmers planters in Bekaa and North who submitted specific proposals to protect and develop the sector.
The interior minister Michel Murr received yesterday ambassadors of the USA, Belgium, China and Italy. He received also the secretary general of the Lebanese World Cultural Union Joseph Francis who quoted the minister saying "All the Lebanese overseas who are of Lebanese extraction can be able to apply to the Lebanese consulates and missions abroad for naturalizations. Minister Murr said that the US travel ban is apparently a political not security decision, because the security situation in Lebanon is one of the best securities in the world. He also said that an annex of the naturalization law needs some time and shall be announced on time so that applicants can proceed.
Former prime minister Omar Karami argued yesterday "where are the gazoline increase the government had imposed a year and half ago for the scales of salaries, and now they are speaking about another increase". He said he hopes the council of ministers and the parliament not to agree to any new increase because the people cannot tolerate more. He added that " the budget which will be debated and surely approved as usual is not serving the economy or social demands. The people are hungry, the economy is extremely difficult and the people are suffering from the little liquidity and little job vacancies. Mr Karami said the support to industrial sector as proposed in the budget is not worthy, the agriculture is out of the economical cycle, and as to tourism there are chaotic prices and Lebanon became one of the most expensive countries.
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