Berri Rejects Talks with Terrorists over Arsal Captives, Welcomes ‘Santa’

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Speaker Nabih Berri rejected any negotiation with the jihadists who took more than 35 soldiers and policemen captive in the northeastern town of Arsal last week.

In remarks to As Safir newspaper published on Monday, Berri said: “Had Prime Minister Tammam Salam asked for my advice, I would have told him to resort to Qatar and Turkey to resolve this issue.”

He rejected any negotiation with the militants or to exchange the captives with Roumieh prison’s Islamist inmates.

The gunmen overran the town 10 days ago upon the army’s arrest of an al-Nusra Front member. The battles that ensued left scores of soldiers dead and injured.

At least 35 soldiers and policemen were held captive by the Islamist fighters. Their fate remains unknown after contacts were lost with them.

The jihadists left Arsal and moved to Syrian territories on Thursday after Sunni clerics negotiated the cease-fire.

In his remarks to As Safir, Berri expressed readiness to cooperate with al-Mustaqbal movement leader Saad Hariri, who visited him in Ain el-Tineh on Sunday, to “confront the danger of terrorism or to reactivate constitutional institutions.”

Hariri has returned with a $1 billion grant to the army and security forces. “We cannot but to welcome Santa,” he said jokingly.

The former PM announced last week that Saudi Arabia would give the army and security forces $1 billion to help their fight against militants.

The speaker, who is also the head of Amal movement and leads the Development and Liberation parliamentary bloc, reiterated his rejection to extend parliament’s term.

“During its extended tenure, the parliament did not elect a president and failed to agree on a new law for the polls,” Berri said.

He cited other draft-laws that the legislature failed to approve, asking “should we extend its term and should its members continue to receive their salaries?”

The parliament’s term was extended last year to November 2014 after its rival blocs failed to agree on a new electoral draft-law.

Berri said his priority was the election of a president, which should be followed by legislative elections even if they were held based on the winner-takes-all system of the 1960 law.

He described the law as “bad,” but said that it is better than the extension of a “paralyzed” parliament’s term.

Berri hinted that he did not mind to have a total vacuum in all constitutional institutions.

The crisis would not be resolved if it did not grow, he said, expecting the end of parliament’s term on November 20 amid a failure to hold the polls.

“Then there would be a bigger vacuum. We would have no president, no parliament and no government,” Berri said.

Baabda Palace is already vacated. President Michel Suleiman’s six-year term ended on May 25 with the parliament unable to find a successor over differences on a compromise candidate.

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