Mubarak pays exceptional visit to Beirut

Egypt gives moral support to Lebanon and guerrillas in conflict with Israel

February 20, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made an unexpected visit to Lebanon yesterday to demonstrate Egypt's support in the wake of Israeli bombing raids that destroyed three Lebanese power plants.

The brief visit was the first by an Egyptian president to Lebanon since the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and came at a time of protests against Israel and the United States in Lebanon and the Arab world.

Before returning to Cairo, Egypt, Mubarak issued a joint statement with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud that endorsed the right of guerrillas fighting for the Iranian-backed Islamic movement Hezbollah to attack Israeli forces in the zone in southern Lebanon occupied by Israel since 1985.

Israel described the attacks Feb. 8 on the power plants, which cut Lebanon's electricity supply in half and wounded 20 Lebanese civilians, as a retaliation for intensified Hezbollah attacks on Israeli forces. Seven Israeli soldiers were killed in recent fighting before both sides appeared to de-escalate the fighting.

"The resistance has the right to confront Israeli occupation until the land is liberated," the Egyptian and Lebanese leaders said in their statement. "The resistance is the result of the occupation, not the cause of it."

The two leaders said that peace in the region could be established only on the basis of "Israel's full withdrawal from occupied Arab territories in southern Lebanon and the western Bekaa Valley," the two areas of Lebanon that are covered by the nine-mile "security zone" Israel declared in 1985 as a buffer against cross-border attacks on targets within Israel.

The statement also demanded that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights, Syrian territory seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and pull back to pre-1967 borders, as well as "from Palestinian lands," which the statement did not specify. It also called for all refugees to be allowed to return to their homes, an issue of pressing concern for Lebanon, which has an estimated 350,000 Palestinian refugees, many of them living in camps since 1948.

The demands amounted to a standard reiteration of those made on Israel by Arabs. This, and the suddenness of Mubarak's trip, led Western diplomats to suggest that the Egyptian leader may have had purposes beyond what the Lebanese government described as "a gesture of solidarity" in coming here.

High among these, the diplomats said, was almost certainly the desire to increase pressure on Israel to make concessions that would restart peace talks with Syria, suspended last month over differences about terms for the return of the Golan Heights.

Beyond this, the diplomats said, Mubarak may have wanted to enlist Lahoud's backing for a meeting of Arab leaders, a gathering not held in several years.

A more immediate purpose of the visit appeared to be to deter Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak from military actions that might escalate the fighting. After the power-plant bombings, Barak warned of further severe retaliation against Lebanon if more Israeli soldiers were killed.

In spite of the quieting of the fighting in the past week, political tensions in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world have risen. In Beirut on Thursday and Friday, large crowds attempted to break through army and police cordons to the U.S. Embassy and CNN offices.

Israel has said it will withdraw its 1,000 troops from southern Lebanon by early July. The announcement appears to have encouraged Hezbollah to seek ways of turning the Israeli pullout into what the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has described as a humiliation.

Pub Date: 2/20/00

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