Tony Blair meets the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora. Photo: AP/Hussein Malla
Demonstrations inside and outside Tony Blair’s summit with the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, marred the first visit by a British prime minister to the country today.As Mr Blair was speaking at a press conference, a woman named as Caoimhe Butterley interrupted and stood 10 feet from the two leaders holding a banner which said “Boycott Israeli apartheid”. She told reporters: “This visit is an insult to the memory of Lebanese, Palestinians and other Muslims. This visit is an insult to the memory of thousands of Lebanese who have died as a result of Blair’s policies. Shame on you Tony Blair.”
The woman, who officials said was Irish and working for a non-governmental organisation in Beirut, was hustled away.
The two leaders continued the press conference, and Mr Siniora said it showed that Lebanon was a vibrant democracy. The protest was mirrored by a demonstration in the city’s Martyrs’ Square, where several hundred demonstrators held placards reading “Blair go to hell”, “Blair you are not welcome in Lebanon” and “This is what intelligent bombs do”.
Mr Blair’s spokesman played down the press conference protest and the potential security risk. “A banner doesn’t harm anybody,” he said.
Mr Blair was also snubbed by radical politicians linked to the extremist group Hizbullah. The two members of the Lebanese cabinet associated with Hizbullah refused to meet him and – most damagingly – the parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a leading Shia politician and conduit for talks with Hizbullah, also failed to meet Mr Blair. Mr Berri had been due to meet the British prime minister but went to Iran on Saturday for what an aide described as a private visit.
Downing Street played down the gestures, insisting the main point of Mr Blair’s visit – the last in a three-day tour of the Middle East – was to meet Mr Siniora. The two men had spoken “almost daily” in August as the British PM supported the push to a UN resolution to end the Israeli offensive in Lebanon. Mr Blair believes that, despite the protests, his visit was a success, an important demonstration of the role he believes he can play to kickstart the faltering Middle East peace process in the last few months of his premiership.
Officials reported that the two leaders had agreed privately that there was “a window of opportunity” in the aftermath of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. Mr Siniora was said to have told Mr Blair: “Now is the time. The moment will pass unless we use it. The moment is now.”
Mr Blair’s spokesman said the prime minister had “an important role, indeed a historic role, in trying to move forward on the issue of Palestine”.
Mr Siniora welcomed the visit, though he acknowledged the men had disagreements over Mr Blair’s refusal to condemn immediately the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. “I really want to see how we can benefit from the positions of all that can serve our cause,” he said. “We respect the positions of various countries without really agreeing with all the positions of the UK.”
Mr Blair denied accusations that he had blown his hand with Arab nations in the Middle East and, making reference to the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, said it was right to remain a strong ally of the US. He defended his position on the Lebanon war, while acknowledging that the country had been attacked seven times in the past 30 years through no fault of its people.
“I believe there is a way out of the problems of the Middle East but it can only be done if we are prepared to put in practical work and commitment to get rid of the underlying disputes,” he said.
In a nod to opinion in Lebanon, Mr Blair said he would like to “express my deepest sympathy to you and your country and for all those who lost members of their families, those that they loved and those that they knew during the recent crisis”.
Britain has given £22.3m in aid to help the reconstruction effort after the July war and £20m towards Unifil, the UN’s interim peacekeeping force in the Lebanon. It has also supplied six emergency bridges and help for “security force reform”, and HMS York is patrolling the coast with the permission of the Lebanese government.