Lebanon's newly designated prime minister said Friday he plans to form a government of experts and independents to deal with the country's crippling economic crisis. Hours after he spoke, riots by his opponents broke out in Beirut, leaving at least seven soldiers injured.
Hassan Diab spoke to reporters following a meeting with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a day after he was asked by the president to form the country's next government. Diab, who is backed by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies, begins his task with the backdrop of ongoing nationwide protests against Lebanon's ruling elite. The country is grappling with its worst economic and financial crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
On Friday night, scuffles on a major avenue in Beirut intensified after Sunnis who apparently support Hariri closed it to protest Diab's nomination. When the army worked on opening the road in Beirut's western Mazraa neighborhood, the protesters hurled stones and fire crackers at troops and riot policemen, injuring at least seven soldiers, the Lebanese army said.
The scuffles had begun Friday morning when protesters first closed the avenue in Mazraa where Hariri enjoys wide support. Hours after the avenue was reopened, protesters closed it again leading to the intense scuffles that lasted until shortly before midnight.
Outgoing Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, a member of Hariri's Future Movement, issued a statement urging protesters to leave the streets "to avoid dangers and strife."
The protesters had earlier blocked the main highway linking Beirut with southern Lebanon with burning tires, causing a miles-long traffic jam. The army opened the road briefly in the town of Naameh before protesters closed it again with flaming tires.
The road closures in Beirut and Naameh were carried out by protesters angered by what they said was Hezbollah and its allies deciding who takes the country's top Sunni post. Hezbollah has backed Hariri for prime minister from the start, but they differed over the shape of the new government.
"I ask (protesters) to give us a chance to form an exceptional government" that can work on resolving the country's many problems, accumulated over the past 30 years, Diab said.
It was not immediately clear if the riots that broke out in Beirut will affect Diab's consultations with members of parliament scheduled for Saturday in preparation for the formation of the Cabinet.
Diab, a university professor and former education minister, won a majority of lawmakers' votes after receiving backing from the powerful Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and its allies. However, he lacks the support of major Sunni figures, including the largest Sunni party headed by Hariri.
That is particularly problematic for Diab, who as a Sunni, lacks support from his own community. And under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing agreement, the prime minister must be Sunni.
Diab, however, emerged from Friday's meeting with Hariri saying the atmosphere was "positive."
"As an expert and an independent, my inclination is to form a government that is truly made up of experts and independents," he said.
Diab faces huge challenges in trying to form a consensual government that would also satisfy protesters. Demonstrators have been on the streets since mid-October, seeking to sweep away an entire political class they deem as corrupt. Diab also faces the mammoth task of dealing with the country's economic and financial crisis in one of the most indebted countries in the world.
Support from the Iran-backed Hezbollah guarantees Diab a thorny path, potentially inviting criticism from Western and Gulf nations that had supported Hariri. The Shiite group is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., some Gulf Arab countries and a few Latin American nations.
In the first U.S. comments after Diab's appointment as prime minister, a senior U.S. official said Washington is ready to help Lebanon "but can do so only when Lebanon's leaders undertake a credible, visible and demonstrable commitment to reform." U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale spoke during a visit in Beirut where he met with the president, parliament speaker and caretaker prime minister Hariri.
Western countries have been holding $11 billion in loans and grants made by international donors at a conference in Paris last year until reforms are carried out in Lebanon, where corruption and mismanagement are widespread.
Hale, on his visit Friday to Beirut, did not directly comment on Diab's appointment, saying only that the United States "has no role in saying who should lead" a Cabinet in Lebanon or anywhere else.
"I'm here to encourage Lebanon's political leaders to commit to, and undertake, meaningful, sustained reforms that can lead to a stable, prosperous and secure Lebanon," he said after meeting President Michel Aoun.
Hale is the most senior foreign diplomat to visit the country since mass protests erupted in mid-October. The sustained, leaderless protests forced Hariri's resignation within days but politicians were later unable to agree on a new prime minister. The ongoing protests and paralysis, meanwhile, worsened the economic crisis.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court took a major step Friday toward opening an investigation into alleged war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories, asking judges to outline the geographic scope of a future investigation.
The announcement ended years of preliminary investigations into alleged crimes by both Israeli forces and Palestinians and signaled that Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is preparing to open a formal probe.
But in asking a panel of judges to determine the territorial jurisdiction of the investigation, she acknowledged the land dispute at the heart of the decades-old conflict, which has never been resolved and could further delay the launch of any criminal probe.
The move drew swift condemnation from Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it "a dark day for truth and justice."
The Palestinians welcomed the decision, with Saeb Erekat, a senior official, calling it a "positive and encouraging step" toward "putting an end to the impunity of the perpetrators and contributing to the achievement of justice."
"This represents a message of hope to our people, the victims of those crimes, that justice is indeed possible," he added.
Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognize its jurisdiction, but Israeli officials could be subject to international arrest warrants if indicted. The state of Palestine requested the investigation as a member of the ICC.
"I am satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation into the situation in Palestine," Bensouda said in a statement.
She said there was a "reasonable basis" to believe Israeli forces, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups committed war crimes during the 2014 Gaza war. She also said Israeli authorities may have committed war crimes related to the "transfer of Israeli civilians into the West Bank," a reference to Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.
Bensouda said she has now asked judges to outline the territorial jurisdiction of a full investigation.
"Specifically, I have sought confirmation that the 'territory' over which the Court may exercise its jurisdiction, and which I may subject to investigation, comprises the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza," she said.
Netanyahu said Bensouda's decision "has turned the International Criminal Court into a political tool to delegitimize the State of Israel. The prosecutor has completely ignored the legal arguments we presented to her."
At the Palestinians' request, Bensouda opened a preliminary investigation in 2015 into alleged violations of international law following the Gaza war.
With the peace process at a standstill for more than a decade, the Palestinians have in recent years sought to hold Israel accountable for alleged violations of international law, including the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel seized those territories along with the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized by most of the international community. The Palestinians want all three to be part of their future state. Hamas, an Islamic militant group, seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007.
In a legal opinion released Friday, Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said the Palestinians do not meet the criteria of statehood because they do not have sovereignty over defined borders. Citing past peace agreements, Israel said the two sides had agreed to resolve their territorial dispute in negotiations.
"By approaching the ICC, the Palestinians are seeking to breach the framework agreed to by the parties and to push the Court to determine political issues that should be resolved by negotiations, and not by criminal proceedings," the legal opinion said.
The Palestinians insisted they are a fully fledged member of the court and that the court has jurisdiction.
Human Rights Watch, which has documented alleged violations by all sides in the conflict, said the court should have moved more quickly to a full investigation.
"Bensouda's decision to seek guidance from the court's judges nearly five years into her preliminary inquiry means that perpetrators of serious crimes will not face justice at the ICC anytime soon," Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
"Palestinian and Israeli victims have faced a wall of impunity for serious violations committed against them for long enough. The prosecutor should have proceeded directly with a formal probe as was within her power to do."
The territorial dispute at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back nearly a century and has bedeviled peace negotiators for decades. Bensouda herself acknowledged that the question of territorial jurisdiction could be difficult to resolve.
"It is no understatement to say that determination of the Court's jurisdiction may, in this respect, touch on complex legal and factual issues," the court filing said.
"The question of Palestine's Statehood under international law does not appear to have been definitively resolved."
Representatives from Yemen's government and the Houthis tasked with monitoring a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations met on Wednesday on a ship on the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.
An official of the military forces in Hodeidah told Xinhua on condition of anonymity that "representatives of the two-warring sides boarded a ship and jointly participated in a meeting chaired by General Abhijit Goha, head of the UN's mission in Hodeidah."
He said that a delegation of Yemen's government led by Major General Mohammed Aida attended the meeting with another delegation representing the Houthi rebels.
The source pointed out that "Wednesday's meeting is the seventh of its kind and held onboard a UN ship on the Red Sea due to the inability of the government delegation to enter the Houthi-controlled city of Hodeidah."
Another source of the government's delegation told Xinhua anonymously that "the meeting will continue for two days on the UN ship to discuss the second phase of the military redeployment and implementing the ceasefire deal in Hodeidah."
Discussing the opening of humanitarian corridors to deliver food aids to civilians in different war-torn areas of Hodeidah will be included in the meeting, he said.
In October, the United Nations started deploying cease-fire observers in Hodeidah, establishing five observation points near the military contact lines between the two warring parties.
The observation points are manned by liaison officers from both parties in accordance with the cease-fire agreement reached last year in Sweden that also called on both warring sides to move forces away from ports and parts of the strategic city.
However, sporadic exchange of gunfire and artillery shelling continued to rock the strategic port city despite the presence of the cease-fire observers.
As the main Yemeni port city along the coast of the Red Sea, Hodeidah is the key lifeline entry of most Yemen's commercial imports and humanitarian aid.
The grinding war of more than five years has pushed over 20 million people to the verge of starvation.
The Iran-allied Houthis control much of Hodeidah while the Saudi-backed government troops have advanced to its southeastern districts.
The cease-fire deal in Stockholm was seen as the first phase toward achieving a comprehensive political solution to the civil war.
A mob in Lebanon attacked the office of a Sunni Muslim religious leader in the northern city of Tripoli, smashing in windows early on Wednesday, reports said. The assailants then moved to one of the city's main squares and set fire to the municipality's Christmas tree.
The violence indicated that the tensions that recently gripped the Lebanese capital, Beirut, over an online video deemed offensive to the country's Shiites are spreading to Tripoli, the country's second-largest city. The state-run National News Agency reported that the military later detained four assailants in Tripoli but did not provide other details.
The military said a mob of men on motorcycles gathered outside the home of Sunni Mufti Sheik Malek al-Shaar and rioted, "used profanity" and smashed property. The mob then moved to the square and threw fire bombs at the Christmas tree, setting it on fire. The military said it arrested four men and confiscated their motorcycles.
On Tuesday, anger boiled over in Beirut after the offensive video was widely circulated online, showing a Sunni resident of Tripoli railing against the leaders of the country's two main Shiite groups, Hezbollah and Amal and religious Shiite figures and using expletives. Their supporters descended on a protest camp in Beirut as security forces intervened to push them back, setting off hours of pitched street battles.
Angry assailants also attacked protest camps in the northern district Hermel and in the southern Sidon and Nabatiyeh on Tuesday.
The violence threatened to plunge Lebanon further into chaos and ignite sectarian strife amid two months of anti-government protests and a spiraling financial crisis.
The daily An-Nahar said the assailants in Tripoli were angered because the Sunni mufti, al-Shaar, had called the powerful Shiite parliament speaker and head of Amal, Nabih Berri, to apologize for the video.
Supporters of the militant Hezbollah group and its close ally, the Amal movement, have been intolerant of the protesters' criticism of their leaders and have tried for days, even before the video emerged, to attack the protest camps.
The anti-government protests, which erupted in mid-October, have spared no Lebanese politician, accusing the ruling elite of corruption and mismanagement, and calling for a government of independents. They have largely been peaceful, sparked by an intensifying economic crisis
Berri, the parliament speaker, and outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri met on Tuesday and urged the Lebanese not to be "drawn toward strife" and adding that some parties they didn't name are working to incite violence in the country.
Supporters of Lebanon's two main Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal clashed with security forces and set fires to cars in the capital early Tuesday, apparently angered by a video circulating online that showed a man insulting Shiite figures.
Police used tear gas and water cannons trying to disperse them.
It was the third consecutive night of violence, and came hours after Lebanon's president postponed talks on naming a new prime minister, further prolonging the turmoil and unrest in the Mediterranean country.
President Michel Aoun postponed the binding consultations with leaders of parliamentary blocs after the only candidate — caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri — failed to win the backing of the country's largest Christian groups amid a worsening economic and financial crisis.
The postponement followed a violent weekend in the small nation that saw the toughest crackdown on demonstrations in two months.
Lebanese security forces repeatedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse hundreds of protesters in downtown Beirut in the worst violence since demonstrations against the political elite erupted in mid-October.
On Monday night, a group of young men clashed with security forces in downtown Beirut after a video began circulating online in which a man insulted Shiite political and religious figures, heightening sectarian tensions. The group, apparently supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, set at least three cars on fire and hurled stones and firecrackers at riot police.
Police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
Aoun had been scheduled to meet with the heads of parliamentary blocs to discuss the naming of the new prime minister. Those consultations are binding, according to the constitution, and Hariri, who resigned under pressure Oct. 29, was widely expected to be renamed.
The presidential palace said the consultations would be held instead on Thursday, based on a request from Hariri.
The U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, had warned that because of the collapsing economy, such postponements are "a risky hazard both for the politicians but even more so" for the people.
Lebanon is enduring its worst economic and financial crisis in decades with a massive debt, widespread layoffs and unprecedented capital controls imposed by local banks amid a shortage in liquidity.
Hariri resigned after protests began earlier in October over widespread corruption and mismanagement. The palace said Hariri had asked Aoun to allow for more time for discussions among political groups before official consultations.
Earlier, the country's main Christian groups said they refused to back Hariri, who has served as premier three times.
His office said in a statement that he is keen for national accord, adding that had he been named to the post, it would have been "without the participation of any of the large Christian blocs."
Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, the prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the parliament speaker from the Shiite community. Hariri has emerged as the only candidate with enough backing for the job, but he is rejected by protesters who demand a Cabinet of independent technocrats and an independent head of government not affiliated with existing parties.
Although the protests had united all sectarian and ethnic groups against the ruling elite, tensions had surfaced from the start between protesters and supporters of the Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, after the latter rejected criticism of its leaders.
Hariri had asked the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for help developing a reform plan to address the economic crisis.
Moody's Investors Service said that without technical support from the IMF, World Bank and international donors, it was increasingly likely that Lebanon could see "a scenario of extreme macroeconomic instability in which a debt restructuring occurs with an abrupt destabilization of the currency peg resulting in very large losses for private investors."
Its currency has been pegged at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar since 1997, but in recent weeks it has reached more than 2,000 in the black market. Lebanon's debt stands at $87 billion or 150 percent of GDP.