Maronites seek poll delay

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BEIRUT (AFP) - Rashid Solh, the Lebanese Prime Minister, yesterday turned down a demand from Lebanese Christians for a postponement of the general election and said it would start as scheduled on 23 August.

The elections planned by the pro-Syrian government - the first in 20 years - are to take place in three stages, but the Christian opposition has demanded a delay and threatened a boycott. They object to voting while Syrian and Israeli troops are still deployed in the country, and because one-third of the population, mostly Christians displaced by the 15-year civil war, are unable to vote.

'I see no reason to postpone the election, which must take place on the dates set by the government,' Mr Solh said after meeting Albert Mukheiber and Boutros Harb, two Christian MPs. Earlier the two MPs met President Elias Hrawi and Hussein Husseini, the Speaker of the House. Mr Mukheiber later said the two men had shown 'understanding' and he hoped 'to reach a solution that satisfies all parties'.

In Syria, the government newspaper Teshrin said attempts to block the election were 'doomed to failure because Lebanon is determined to advance the process of national reconciliation and political reforms in line with Taif'. The 1989 Taif accord to end the civil war sets out the terms for political reforms, the holding of elections and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut by the end of September. Teshrin said Lebanese parties opposed to the elections 'aimed to sabotage the security and peace process and to deliver a blow to the political and economic improvement of the country'.

Supporters of the former Lebanese Forces militia once led by General Michel Aoun, and of the Christian leaders Raymond Edde and Camille Chamun, have warned they will boycott the election unless it is postponed. The influential Maronite church supports a delay. But sources in the Christian community say it is divided on the issue of a boycott. Most Christian MPs have warned against a boycott, which one described as a 'leap into the unknown'.