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Beirut Gearing up for Arab Summit - 2002-03-25

Beirut is in the final days of preparation for an Arab League summit that officially begins Wednesday.

Heads of state from 21 Arab countries as well as representatives from the Palestinian territories are expected to attend the summit, and security will be tight. For the duration of the meeting, downtown Beirut will be virtually off limits to all but the delegates and the members of media.

Lebanon has deployed 8,500 soldiers and policemen and another 6,000 soldiers are on standby. Anti-aircraft guns have been deployed at bridges and tunnels, and commercial flights into Beirut International Airport will be strictly limited between Tuesday and Thursday.

The man in charge of coordinating the conference is Ghassan Salama, Lebanon's minister of culture. He says his biggest concern is not security but logistics, because Beirut has never hosted any meeting of this size before. "The biggest issue is, basically, logistical in the sense that never in the past was Lebanon in charge of organizing such an event," he said. "So we have to train people. We have buy equipment. We have to organize things in hotels and rooms and meeting rooms because the country has not been able, in the past few years, to build a really regular conference center, so we have to make up for this deficit in different ways."

Mr. Salama says his main goal for the summit is to produce an atmosphere that will "make it a working conference as opposed to just another media event".

Mr. Salama says he expects the summit to produce definitive results because, he says, "Arab nations cannot afford to give a message to the world that Arabs are not able to agree on common ground issues."

The summit appears likely to focus on three major issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Saudi peace proposal aimed at ending the conflict, and Arab opposition to possible U.S. military action in Iraq.

At this point, it still remains unclear whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be able to attend. Israel is demanding that Mr. Arafat implement a truce before it will grant him permission to leave the Palestinian territories.