Lebanon's year-old unity government collapsed today after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned over tensions stemming from a UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The walkout ushers in the country's worst political crisis since 2008 in one of the most volatile corners of the Middle East.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader, cut short a visit to Washington after meeting with President Barack Obama. He was heading to Paris where he will meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy tomorrow, his office in Beirut said.
Hariri planned to hold consultations on his government's collapse while in France, then would return to Beirut, according to an official in Hariri's delegation.
Hariri made no public comment after meeting Obama, but the official said Obama offered US support.
The tribunal is widely expected to name members of Hezbollah in upcoming indictments, which many fear could re-ignite sectarian tensions that have plagued the tiny country for decades.
"This cabinet has become a burden on the Lebanese, unable to do its work," Energy Minister Jibran Bassil said at a news conference announcing the resignations, flanked by the other ministers who are stepping down. "We are giving a chance for another government to take over."
Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, has denounced the tribunal as an "Israeli project" and urged the Western-backed prime minister to reject any findings by the court even before it announced any indictments.
But the prime minister has refused to break cooperation with the tribunal.
Hariri's office had no immediate comment on the walkout that brought down his government while he was in Washington.
Labour Minister Butros Harb, who is with the anti-Hezbollah bloc, told reporters after a meeting of Hariri's supporters that they are open to dialogue but "there will be no compromise over justice and the tribunal."
The walkout followed the failure of a diplomatic push by Syria and Saudi Arabia to ease political tensions in Lebanon. There had been few details about the direction of the Syrian-Saudi initiative, but the talks were lauded as a potential Arab breakthrough, rather than a solution offered by Western powers.
Bassil said the ministers decided to resign after Hariri "succumbed to foreign and American pressures" and turned his back on the Syrian-Saudi efforts.
Calls to the tribunal seeking comment today were not immediately returned.
Hariri formed the current national unity government in November 2009, but it has struggled to function amid deep divisions. The crisis over the tribunal has paralysed the government in recent months.
Violence has been a major concern as tensions rise in Lebanon, where Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each make up about a third of the country's four million people. In 2008, sectarian clashes killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.
Rafik Hariri's assassination in a suicide bombing that killed 22 other people both stunned and polarized Lebanese. He was a Sunni who was a hero to his own community and backed by many Christians who sympathized with his efforts in the last few months of his life to reduce Syrian influence in the country. A string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and public figures followed, which UN investigators have said may have been connected to the Hariri killing.
The Netherlands-based tribunal has not said who it will indict, but Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has said he has information that members of his group will be named.
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