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May 28, 2017

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Lebanon president seeks all-party talks on gov't future

BEIRUT--Lebanese President Michel Sleiman has launched a drive for all-party talks to assess his chances of forming a new government after calls for the premier to quit over a deadly bombing, his office said

Lebanon has been in crisis since Friday, when a car bomb blamed on Syria killed police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan in Beirut.

A high-ranking official in the president's office told AFP Sleiman "has begun consultations with the leading figures of the country, in the context of the national dialogue, to discuss the possibility of forming a new government."

The talks come amid a clamor of calls led by ex-Premier and opposition chief Saad Hariri for Prime Minister Najib Mikati to step down over the assassination of Hassan, who had been prominent in pursuing political killings in Lebanon allegedly linked to Syria.

Mikati said on Saturday he had accepted Sleiman's request to stay on for the time being in the "national interest."

The official in Sleiman's office said that if the envisaged dialogue "were to result in agreement on the form of a new government that can pull Lebanon out of its impasse, then Mr. Mikati could present his resignation and the process of forming the government could begin."

However, Hariri's March 14 coalition insists that Mikati resign before it will join any national dialogue.

An MP from Christian politician Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Current, part of the governing coalition dominated by the Shiite party Hezbollah, an ally of Syria, criticized what he said was opposition obstructionism.

"We are open in principle to any discussion about any subject but against the paralysis of (state) institutions," Ibrahim Kanaan told AFP.

"What does it serve to boycott everything the government does," he asked, referring to March 14's refusal to participate in any forum where the government is present. "Nothing."

The United States and the European Union, both anxious to ward off any further Syrian interference in Lebanon, have separately warned against creating a political vacuum.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday the "export of instability from Syria threatens the security of Lebanon now more than ever, and it's really up to the Lebanese people to choose a government that is going to counter this threat."

And EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, without pointing a finger, said in Beirut on Tuesday that "there are some who are trying to divert attention from the situation in the region by causing problems in Lebanon."

The Lebanese official said "their message can be summed up as follows: 'Come to an agreement on a new government and we will support you.' We want to see institutions to continue working and oppose any institutional vacuum."

U.S. Ambassador Maura Connelly met with Sleiman on Wednesday to reiterate Washington's support for efforts "to build an effective government and take the necessary next steps" in the wake of Hassan's murder, the embassy said.

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