BEIRUT: Lebanon's year-old unity government collapsed Wednesday after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned over tensions stemming from a UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The walkout ushers in the country's worst political crisis since 2008 in one of the most volatile corners of the Middle East.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader, cut short a visit to Washington after meeting with President Barack Obama. He was heading to Paris where he will meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday, his office in Beirut said.
Hariri planned to hold consultations on his government's collapse while in France, then would return to Beirut, according to an official in Hariri's delegation.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration was "consulting closely with concerned parties and nations as to the best way forward to preserve the sovereignty, stability and independence of Lebanon and the needs of the Lebanese people." "We view what happened today as a transparent effort ... to subvert justice and to undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and independence," she told reporters in Doha.
The tribunal is widely expected to name members of Hezbollah in upcoming indictments, which many fear could re-ignite sectarian tensions that have plagued the tiny country for decades.
"This Cabinet has become a burden on the Lebanese, unable to do its work," Energy Minister Jibran Bassil said at a news conference announcing the resignations, flanked by the other ministers who are stepping down. "We are giving a chance for another government to take over."
Hezbollah has denounced the tribunal as an "Israeli project" and urged the prime minister to reject any findings by the court even before it announced any indictments.
But the prime minister has refused to break cooperation with the tribunal.
Hariri's office had no immediate comment on the walkout that brought down his government while he was in Washington.
Obama and Hariri reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening Lebanon's sovereignty and independence during their Wednesday meeting. A White House statement said Obama had commended Hariri for his "steadfast leadership and efforts to reach peace, stability and consensus in Lebanon under difficult circumstances." "The efforts by the Hezbollah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government's ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people," the statement said.
Labor Minister Butros Harb, who is with the anti-Hezbollah bloc, told reporters after a meeting of Hariri's supporters that they are open to dialogue but "there will be no compromise over justice and the tribunal." The walkout followed the failure of a diplomatic push by Syria and Saudi Arabia to ease political tensions in Lebanon.
Ahead of Hezbollah's announcement, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal warned that the prospect of political instability posed "a great danger" for Lebanon and the region.
"If the resignations materialize, if there is a split... this may lead to a conflict... And this poses a great danger... Lebanon may face the problems it faced before, and this will affect the countries in the region," he said.
"We wish that those resignations do not happen," he said, speaking at a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, in Ankara .
Davutoglu said Ankara had been in touch with Hariri and Syrian leaders to discuss the situation.
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