Turkish PM receives "gracious welcome" in Lebanon

AFP, Thursday 25 Nov 2010

Aside from the diplomatic reception and the honour guard, the streets of Beirut were embellished with Turkish flags and posters of welcome.

Prime Minister Erdogan
Reuters: Lebanese policeman stands guard as supporters hold banners and wave Turkish flags during a welcome ceremony for Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, outside Beirut international airport November 24, 2010.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was graciously welcomed in Lebanon for a two-day visit. Aside from the diplomatic reception and the honour guard, the streets of Beirut were embellished with Turkish flags and posters of welcome.

On his visit, Prime Minister Erdogan urged Lebanon's rival factions to unite and overcome the cries linked to the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

Turkey would "work to help preserve the unity of Lebanon," Erdogan said after a meeting with Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

Erdogan underlined the importance of avoiding a civil conflict that could spread through the region while meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Berri, a Lebanese government official said on condition of anonymity.

The premier's visit comes as Lebanon anxiously awaits an anticipated indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the 2005 bombing that killed Rafiq Hariri and 22 others.

"The aim of [Erdogan's] visit was to sign bilateral agreements... and strengthen quadripartite ties among Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon," Suleiman's office said. "The meeting also covered... the importance of finding solutions to all matters related to the international tribunal."

Tensions are soaring in Beirut as the STL is reportedly set to implicate high-ranking Hezbollah operatives in the Hariri murder, a move the militant party has warned against.

Erdogan, whose country played a key role in mediating now-frozen peace talks between Syria and Israel, said Turkey would do everything in its power to prevent war in Lebanon, in comments published hours ahead of his visit.

"Today we stand by Lebanon as we always have," he said.

As usual, Erdogan's words were very sharp when it came to Israel, the Turkish premierstressed on the protection of rights in Gaza and Jerusalem calling on Israel to retract its mistakes and apologise. Talking to a populace gathering in Akkar in north Lebanon, the premier comforted his recipients saying should there be a war, Israel would be at loss.

Turkey is widely seen as aiming to position itself as a central regional mediator in the troubled Middle East.

In the evening, Erdogan told a joint news conference with Hariri that he had contacted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before his visit and would get in touch with him again on his return to Ankara to "evaluate the situation."

"Lebanon must be free of these pressures... we hope it finds stability," said the Turkish leader.

Hariri welcomed the comments and said that "dialogue is essential. We must give dialogue a priority."

He also reiterated the UN-backed tribunal was established under UN Security Council resolutions and "nobody can change that," in reference to Hezbollah's call for a boycott of the proceedings.

Hariri and Erdogan signed a free trade agreement between the two countries, after an agreement was reached earlier this year on establishing a free trade zone that also includes Jordan and Syria.

Erdogan is due to visit Turkish troops serving the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon and will also inaugurate a Turkish-funded medical centre that specialises in treating burn victims in the southern coastal city of Sidon.

Despite the generally cordial reception of Erdogan, his arrival in Beirut was punctuated by a group of Armenians protesting what they say was genocide against their community by Turkey's precursor, the Ottoman Empire, in the early 20th century.

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