Lebanon's Hariri heads to Syria

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is to visit former long-time foe and powerbroker Syria on Saturday for the first time since taking office for talks with President Bashar al-Assad.

Hariri, who was to meet with visiting Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh beforehand, is due to head to Damascus early in the afternoon for a stay of about five hours.

The visit is Hariri's first since the 2005 assassination of his father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, and could mark a turning point in relations between Lebanon and Syria.

After years of tense ties over the murder, Hariri told parliament this month he was interested in forging "brotherly ties" with Damascus.

"The government wants to raise brotherly ties between Lebanon and Syria to a level in line with the two countries' historical ties and mutual interest," Hariri said before his cabinet received parliament's vote of confidence.

Hariri, who in the past has implicated Damascus in his father's killing, has never had any official contact with Assad's regime.

The 39-year-old premier has had sour relations with Syria ever since the massive Beirut bombing in February 2005 that killed his father and 22 others, pointing his finger at Damascus at the time.

The international community widely pinned the blame for the murder on Syria, which withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005 under public pressure after 29 years of military and political domination.

Damascus has consistently denied involvement in the assassination.

In June, a UN inquiry said it had evidence that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were linked to the killing, but no charges have been brought.

Earlier this month, a Syrian court asked 25 prominent Lebanese figures, including individuals close to Hariri himself, to appear for questioning over the murder.

The Syrian court acted after former Lebanese security services director Jamil Sayyed filed a lawsuit in Damascus in October in connection with his detention without charges for four years over Hariri's murder.

The list also included police chief Ashraf Rifi and prosecutor general Saeed Mirza, as well as several MPs and journalists.

In November, Hariri's 30-member cabinet adopted a policy statement despite reservations by his Christian allies on a clause that deals with the weapons of the Syria- and Iran-backed Shiite party Hezbollah.

Hariri formed his unity government after five months of drawn-out talks with his political rivals.

His US- and Western-backed coalition defeated the Hezbollah-led alliance in a legislative vote on June 7.

Lebanon and Syria recently established diplomatic ties following decades of turbulent relations.

The thaw came after a joint pledge by Assad and his Lebanese opposite number, Michel Sleiman, who was in Syria on Friday.

Syria opened its first embassy in Lebanon just under a year ago, and Lebanon sent an ambassador to Damascus in March.

It was the two countries' first diplomatic exchange since gaining independence from France more than 60 years ago.