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Talks after crackdown?

Lebanese Christians try to pressure govt into talks after crackdown

BEIRUT, Aug 23 (AFP) -
Lebanon's embattled Christian opposition Thursday tried to pressure pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud into a dialogue, even as prosecutors prepared more cases against them that could result in death sentences.

The anti-Syrian Christian opposition umbrella group Assembly at Qornet Chehouane demanded the government punish the leaders of a recent military crackdown against its members to pave the way for reconciliation talks.

"We consider this ... necessitates the creation of a favourable climate, and that the powers must assume their responsibilities and punish the (crackdown) leaders, whatever their status, for their abuses and violations of the law," the Christian parties and intellectuals said in a statement after their meeting.

Meanwhile, judicial sources said four people, including two journalists, implicated in the crackdown could be facing the death penalty for their alleged links with Israel, which is still technically at war with the country.

Chief military prosecutor Nasri Lahoud has prepared cases against Antoine Bassil, a freelance correspondent for the Saudi MBC radio, and Habib Younes, managing editor of the Beirut edition of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, for having "contacts with the Israeli enemy," the sources said.

Both Bassil and Younes were detained last week as the army intelligence units arrested more than 200 anti-Syrian Christians.

Bassil already faces the death penalty in a similar case filed earlier.

The two others facing the same charges are the head of the pro-Israeli Christian Guardians of the Cedar Party, Etienne Sacre, and one of its members, Tony Shalfoun, the sources said.

Sacre fled to Israel after the Jewish state ended it 22-year occupation of south Lebanon in May 2000, while Shalfoun's whereabouts are unknown.

Two of the Assembly's founding members, Tufiq Hindi, political advisor to the outlawed Lebanese Forces (LF) militia, and retired general Nadim Lteif, coordinator of the similar Free National Current (FNC), were also arrested.

Lteif was released with a warning, while Hindi appeared before a military court on Thursday after a judge postponed a first hearing because he appeared in ill-health and there were fears he had been mistreated.

His wife, Claude Hindi, visited him Thursday and told AFP that her husband appeared "pale" and "cold", and denied prosecutor's claims that he suffered from chronic heart problems.

Meanwhile, a Muslim was also referred to the military court Thursday for alleged ties with Israel through Odid Zaray, the country's press officer for south Lebanon during its 22-year occupation which ended last May.

Jamal Hashem Nasser has been charged with "collaboration with Israel" and selling Israeli clothing in Lebanon, and has confessed, another source said.

Hindi, Younes and Bassil have all also been accused of having contacts with Zaray, as part of their alleged plots to ruin Lebanon's relations with Syria.

Syrian troops have been in Lebanon since the early days of the country's 1975-1990 civil war, and the iron-fisted security measures have raised complaints that Syria is turning its smaller neighbour into a police state.

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