US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to visit Lebanon on Friday or Saturday, though the station is not included in her announced itinerary, press reports today said.
She is accordingly expected to arrive by land from Damascus after talks with President Hafez Assad. The meeting place has not yet been announced, but it could either be Shtaura, the Presidential Palace in Baabda, or President Hrawi's residence in Zahle.
Press reports said postponing the visit to Lebanon is not likely unless a last minute security reason occurs. The files to be discussed are expected to be prepared tonight pending the return of President Hrawi and Foreign Minister Boueiz from a 10-day official visit to Brazil.
Prime Minister Hariri is expected to cut short his visit to France to attend the meeting with Albright. House speaker Nabih Berri from Bucharest, Romania, affirmed Albright will be visiting Lebanon. He said she is touring the region to revive the peace talks, and will succeed in doing that as a result of the pressures exerted in south Lebanon.
The last visit to Lebanon by a US senior official was two years ago when former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Lebanon following Israel's "grapes of wrath" operation in April last year.
Albright's visit is by itself important because it comes after the recent lifting of the US travel ban to Lebanon.
Lebanese officials are expected to adhere to the principles of the Madrid conference on which the foundation of a permanent, just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East was based. They are also expected to express the conviction that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's have twisted the course of the peace process, and is posing a threat to it. Albright will discuss with Lebanese officials the situation in south Lebanon, and would perhaps convey an Israeli desire to discuss withdrawal on condition of freezing resistance operations, and guaranteeing that south Lebanon will not be used to attack northern Israel.
In response, Lebanon is expected to be firm in reiterating its stance saying, "let Israel unconditionally pull out in accordance with UN resolution 425, and the Lebanese official armed forces and security agencies will provide the required guarantee".
The officials here would argue that the doubts raised by Israel with regard to Lebanon's ability to restore security are groundless, and would only mean Israel is not really willing to pull out.
Lebanese officials also expect Albright to try persuading them to participate in the upcoming Middle East and North Africa Economic Conference in Doha, Qatar. But they would express reservations on the grounds that failing to make progress in the bilateral peace talks will render the Conference fruitless. However, Albright's short visit to Lebanon would not allow discussing bilateral relations in details. But Lebanon would probably demand eliminating all barriers facing the travel of Americans to Lebanon, especially the strong warning about the "risks" involved.
Hizbullah yesterday announced it has agreed to the swap mediation of the chief delegate in Lebanon of the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) Jean-Jacques Fresard. A Hizbullah official said no details were yet discussed. He however said the ICRC is not the only communication channel.
On the eve of Albright's expected visit to Lebanon, and parallel to the on going swap negotiations, the Islamic resistance yesterday evening clashed for about two hours with an Israeli patrol near the border village of Houla. Machine-guns and rocket fires were traded while Israeli helicopters hovered above. The Islamic resistance said a special unit ambushed an Israeli foot patrol near Houla, and opened fire at it. Two SAM-7 missiles were reportedly fired at the Israeli helicopters while trying to evacuate casualties, an Islamic resistance statement said.
In Israel, the Davis Academy of the Hebrew University organized a day long study on the withdrawal from south Lebanon. Cabinet members and opposition figures participated in the study. Minister of science and technology, upon an authorization from the Prime Minister, said the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon is a topic of discussion now at the security level. Some call for considering a possible withdrawal, on condition the alternative to the security zone in south Lebanon would be acceptable by the security agencies.
Labor Party Knesset member Yussi Belin said he supports a withdrawal of the Israeli army even if that is not linked to reaching a settlement with Syria. Former commander of the northern front with Lebanon General Yussi Peled said he couldn't imagine how the northern towns in Israel could be protected without the stationing of the Israeli army in the security zone. He said Hizbullah would view the unilateral withdrawal as a sign of Israel weakness.
Syrian Information Minister Mohammad Salman yesterday denied having secret talks between his country and Israel. He said it is not the first time the Israeli officials circulate such incorrect allegations. On Tuesday, it was reported that Syria and Israel have held contacts lately. Salman affirmed that the principles of the Madrid conference are the basis upon which contacts could be made to resume peace talks.
A French foreign ministry spokesman said the French Prime Minister has expressed his explicit desire to sign the 1997 protocol with Lebanon to highlight the importance of France's relations with Lebanon. He said France's Foreign Minister Hubert Vidrine would visit this evening Prime Minister Hariri at his residence in Paris. The spokesman revealed that Hariri's talks in Paris will focus on bilateral relations, the faltering peace process, the situation in south Lebanon, and the job of the ceasefire Monitoring Group. The spokesman said France fully appreciates the work done by the Group which, he said, is not a substitute for the peace talks.
President Elias Hrawi is expected to return at 9.00 p.m. this evening, ending a 10-day official visit to Brazil. During the visit, Hrawi toured the country, stopping at 7 different stations. Prior to ending his visit, Hrawi said addressing the Lebanese expatriates that it is their right to win back their nationality. He also said that resistance against Israel is a legitimate right, and accused Israel of spreading the spirit fundamentalism for the purpose of dividing and ruling the region. Hrawi's visit to Brazil was the second by a Lebanese president since the year 1954. The first was by late President Camille Chamoun.
Days before September 13, the date Sheikh Subhi Tufaili has set for resuming his "hunger revolution", Interior Minister Michel Murr affirmed following a meeting of the Internal Security Council that the Cabinet's decision to prevent demonstrations and gatherings, "will be implemented". He also called all parties concerned to consider what is taking place in the region, and what has taken place last week, and said, "we are facing some regional and international issues that might have serious effects on the situation in Lebanon ".
Minister Murr heading a meeting at his office of the Internal Security Council yesterday said, "the Council discussed the security situation in the country, especially the adverse effects that might take place after the recent Israeli aggressions in south Lebanon, and the precautionary measures necessary to face any possible emergency".
Asked about the measures that will be taken to face Tufaili's movements on September 13, Murr said, "when military and security agencies are commissioned to implement a decision by the Council of Ministers, this means all dates and issues are included".
Relying to a question on whether the government will act if Tufaili insists, he said, "the implementation of the cabinet's decision is clear with regard to preventing gatherings and demonstrations in public areas".
- Patriarch Sfeir yesterday told his visitors that the visit to Lebanon by Pope Jean Paul II has spontaneously united Lebanon's Muslim and Christian communities around the head of the Church. He said fears of resuming the conflict among the Lebanese are not justified. He said the split is among the ruling class and not the Lebanese themselves. He also told a French delegation that foreign military presence in Lebanon has rendered the Lebanese unable to decide for themselves.
-Lebanon's "Gathering for the Republic" under MP Albert Mukheiber appealed to Mrs. Albright to attempt ending Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, and the Syrian presence as well.
-Lebanon's "National Gathering" under Dori Chamoun reiterated the Gathering's call to Mrs. Albright to visit Lebanon and deal with it on an equal footing with the other countries of the region. The Gathering said Lebanese immigrants regaining the Lebanese nationality is a matter of principle, and a basic right consecrated by international charters and conventions.
-Lebanon's "Gathering for Jezzine" confirmed its openness to all Lebanese parties and said the fate of Jezzine and south Lebanon is one and indivisible. The Gathering appealed to those who left Jezzine to return back home, and called the parties concerned to urge their return. Sources in the Gathering said a meeting today with Hizbullah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah will discuss the situation in Jezzine and Sidon.
-A recent study highlighting the risk of earthquakes in Lebanon was argued here, especially with regard to the timing, and whether there are political motivations behind it. Lebanese professor Charles Tabet of the Scientific Research Council said it is common knowledge that Beirut is subject to quakes. The question, however, is why the issue was raised when downtown Beirut and other areas are being rebuilt, and foreign investments are pouring in.
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