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Page last updated at 18:33 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 19:33 UK

Lebanese leaders gather in Qatar

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani (L) and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa at a press conference in Beirut, 15 May, 2008
The proposed deal came after two days of peace talks in Beirut

Lebanon's rival political leaders have begun talks in the Gulf state of Qatar aimed at pulling the country back from the brink of civil war.

Fighting between pro-government groups and the Hezbollah-led opposition last week left at least 65 people dead.

After the Lebanese government reversed moves aimed at curbing Hezbollah, the group agreed to join talks on the formation of a unity government.

A deal on Wednesday ended the clashes and paved the way for Friday's talks.

Under the Qatari-mediated agreement, the Western-backed government reversed attempts to outlaw Hezbollah's private telephone network and reassign Beirut airport's security chief.

The moves triggered the worst violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

In return, the opposition agreed to end sit-in protests in Beirut, remove street blockades and allow the city's airport to re-open fully.

Parallel dialogue

Talks in Qatar are expected to try to reach agreement on the appointment of a Lebanese president, which the country has been lacking since November, the composition of a national unity government and a new parliamentary election law.

Blockade on Beirut highway

The two sides have already agreed to appoint Lebanese army commander Gen Michel Suleiman as president, but must resolve the other issues first.

Lebanon has been in political crisis since late 2006 when the Hezbollah-led opposition left a national unity coalition cabinet, demanding more power and a veto over government decisions.

In this week's deal, the two sides also agreed to a parallel dialogue on spreading state sovereignty throughout Lebanon while pledging to refrain from using weapons to further political aims and to remove militants from the streets.

Such stipulations, says the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut, imply Hezbollah's political position has been damaged by its use of resistance arms in the domestic arena - although the group's strength in the clashes demonstrated its undoubted supremacy on the ground.

Roadblocks removed

"At the Doha conference, there will be an opportunity for everyone to give his opinion on all the issues," said the head of the Arab League delegation, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, after two days of peace talks in Beirut.

As news of a deal broke, mechanical diggers began removing roadblocks set up last week by militants on the route to Beirut's international airport, paving the way for the first commercial flight in a week to land.

Naim Qassam, the deputy leader of Hezbollah, earlier pledged the Shia group would return the situation in Lebanon back "to normal".

Our correspondent says the Lebanese know that issues like the make-up of a new government have defied all previous efforts to reach agreement.

But they will cautiously welcome the improved situation on the ground, while keeping their fingers crossed that the dialogue will produce a stable political situation, he says.

Lebanon's governing coalition said last week's violence was a coup attempt by Hezbollah aimed at restoring the influence of the two regional powers, Syria and Iran.


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