BEIRUT (Reuters) - Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri, speaking on a rare visit marking the 10th anniversary of his father’s assassination, said dialogue with Hezbollah was necessary to ease sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Five members of Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah have been indicted by an international tribunal over the 2005 killing of Rafik al-Hariri, who was commemorated on Saturday in the Lebanese capital.
The group has denied any involvement in the murder, which pushed Lebanon to the brink of civil war and still stirs emotions 10 years later. The killing deepened a sectarian divide in Lebanon’s politics that still affects it to this day.
His son Saad, Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician who is backed by Saudi Arabia, criticized Hezbollah on Saturday for its involvement in the Syrian conflict and said he would not allow the group to drag Lebanon further into the civil war next door.
But he also backed talks between his Future Movement and Iran-backed Hezbollah that started in January to contain tensions in Lebanon that have been exacerbated by Syria’s conflict.
“Dialogue is simply a necessity at this stage,” he said at a ceremony dedicated to his father. “It is an Islamic need to contain sectarian tensions...a national necessity to right the political process and end the vacancy in the (Lebanese) presidency.”
The talks, the first such Sunni-Shi‘ite dialogue since the start of the Syria crisis, could not have proceeded without the blessing of regional backers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, who appear keen to spare Lebanon more turmoil.
Saad called on Hezbollah to work together with his movement on a national strategy to combat extremism and urged the group to end its involvement in Syria, where its fighters are battling on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.
Saad also condemned Assad, whom he blames for his father’s death, saying he had destroyed Syria. “He succeeded as well in opening the border to the forces of extremism, and displacing 10 million Syrian citizens who now wander tragically all over the world,” he said.
The four-year-old Syrian conflict has aggravated tensions across the Middle East. It involves overwhelmingly Sunni insurgents who oppose Assad, a member of the Shi‘ite-derived Alawite minority, and allied Shi‘ite groups including Hezbollah.
Saad came back to the country for the first time in three years in August, raising hopes among politicians and public figures that he could help stabilize Lebanon, which is plagued by violence and caught in political deadlock. The country has been without a president since May.
On Saturday he said he was confident that the international tribunal into his father’s death would produce a fair verdict. The trial, which started on January 2014 at The Hague is closely watched in Lebanon. Saad has blamed Syria for his father’s murder, a charge Damascus denies.
Scores of Lebanese queued to lay flowers at Rafik al-Hariri’s grave next to the capital’s main mosque on Saturday Some broke down in tears while others posed for photographs beside large posters of the late statesman.
The bomb that killed him, packed in a van filled with the equivalent of 2.5 tons of high explosive, was detonated by an unidentified suicide bomber. It killed 21 others and wounded more than 200 as it ripped through a busy street.
The assassination pushed Saad into politics and he remains influential in Lebanon despite leaving in 2011 after his government was toppled by a coalition including Hezbollah.
He entered the venue on Saturday smiling and waving, flanked by bodyguards. Since leaving Lebanon in 2011 he divides his time between Saudi Arabia and France.
Editing by Tom Heneghan and Stephen Powell