In Rare Summit, Arab Rivals Try To Ease Tension Saudi Arabia and Syria were bitterly divided in the aftermath of the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But the leaders of both countries visited Lebanon on Friday to try to ease tensions over reports Hezbollah will be implicated in the crime by an international tribunal.
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In Rare Summit, Arab Rivals Try To Ease Tension

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In Rare Summit, Arab Rivals Try To Ease Tension

In Rare Summit, Arab Rivals Try To Ease Tension

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

Lebanon hosted a landmark Arab summit today. The king of Saudi Arabia and the president of Syria went together to Beirut to defuse tensions over anticipated indictments from an international tribunal.

The militant Shiite group Hezbollah is likely to be implicated in the 2005 murder of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The leader of Hezbollah has vowed to defy the tribunal, which is backed by the Lebanese government.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS: An unusual sight in the Lebanese capital: the Saudi and Syrian flags fluttering alongside Lebanon's state symbol. It's the welcome for the summit's key players. Saudi Arabia and Syria are ideological rivals, but they came together to ease tensions here - at least thats what Lebanese hoped, riveted to the live coverage across the country.

Ali Agha watched the arrivals from a local cafe.

Mr. ALI AGHA: They're trying to get to an agreement between all the Middle East areas. They want peace, thats what I think and hopefully that's what we'll get to. That's what we want. We don't want any more wars or anything.

AMOS: The gathering does represent a dramatic turn in regional politics, says Lebanese analyst Paul Salem with the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Dr. PAUL SALEM (Director, Carnegie Middle East Center): Whats significant is that to see Saudi Arabia and Syria sort of on the same page and working together over this issue is remarkable, because this is the issue that drove them apart five years ago - bitterly.

AMOS: The issue is the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri. Many blamed on Syria, the main powerbroker in Lebanon at the time. Hariri was a Sunni leader with strong ties to Saudi Arabia. Syria denied involvement, but Saudi Arabia froze relations with Damascus.

Five years on, there's a political thaw that also includes the slain leader's son, Saad Hariri. He's now Lebanon's prime minister. He stepped back from public accusations that Syria was responsible for his father's death. He's worked to repair relations with his powerful neighbor and a patron of Hezbollah.

Hariri's efforts have paid off in stability and cooperation with the Shiite organization. Hezbollah is represented in the Cabinet and in the parliament. But the crisis ahead could unravel the country, following reports that Hezbollah will be indicted in the 2005 murder.

Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah said he won't accept the indictments. He calls the charges politically motivated - he said it was an Israeli plot - and he warned that the militant movement knows how to fight. That put Nasrallah on a collision course with the prime minister, who supports the investigation.

It's why the summit was called even before the tribunal has officially announced any indictments, says Elias Muhanna, who writes an influential blog on Lebanon.

Mr. ELIAS MUHANNA (Political Blogger, QifaNabki.com): I mean the fact that they're meeting before the indictments are even issued, just to make sure that some kind of an alternative solution might be found, suggests that they really are trying to contain the situation before it gets out of hand.

AMOS: Containing the situation is a tall order for a summit that ended with a four-page document without one word about the tribunal. But it did call on all sides not to resort to violence. It's a message that carries more weight coming from the Syrians and the Saudis, the major powerbrokers in the region.

The summit could head off Hezbollah's demands to end government support and funding for the tribunal, an effort that would ultimately fail, says Paul Salem.

Dr. SALEM: Hezbollah is an armed group that is of great concern to the Arab countries and states, of course to Israel and to the U.S. and to Europe and to the international community. And this is not something that can be buried locally or stopped locally.

AMOS: And locally, Hariri's supporters also demand the court continues its work to answer a question that still haunts the country: Who killed Rafik Hariri? Billboards across the capital carry this slogan: The truth for the sake of Lebanon.

Ahmed Shabaro is a Beirut businessman.

Mr. AHMED SHABARO (Businessman): I want to know the truth, yeah. But let the truths come out. Because if we don't know the truth, the same people who killed will continue their killing and nobody will stop them. So you need to stop them.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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