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Saudi and Syrian leaders in Lebanon

The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia have launched an unprecedented effort to defuse fears of violence over upcoming indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri - the son of the murdered statesman - and President Michel Suleiman were at the airport as Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad stepped off the plane together. It was a strong public show of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which for years vied for influence over Lebanon.

Many fear that new violence between Lebanon's Shiite and Sunni communities could break out if the international tribunal investigating Hariri's death implicates the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is Syria's main ally in Lebanon.

In May 2008, Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni pro-government neighbourhoods of Beirut, raising fears the country could fall into a new civil war. That crisis was resolved only after fellow Arab countries mediated a truce and political compromise between the two sides that has tenuously held since.

Hariri was a Sunni leader with strong links to Saudi Arabia. The international tribunal investigating Hariri's death has not announced who will be charged, but the leader of Hezbollah said last week that members of his group would be among those indicted.

The summit was unusual on multiple levels, a sign of the depth of concern over the potential for violence. Assad rarely goes to Beirut - his last trip was in 2002, which at the time was the first visit by a Syrian leader to the Lebanese capital in nearly three decades.

Many in Lebanon blame Syria for the truck bombing on Valentine's Day 2005 that killed Hariri, charges that Damascus denies. The blast deepened a rift between Assad and Saudi King Abdullah, who each backed rival sides in the ensuing power struggle that nearly tore Lebanon apart, Syria backing a Hezbollah-led coalition and Saudi Arabia and the United States supporting a Sunni-led coalition.

In recent years, however, Assad and Abdullah have repaired ties, and the joint visit was a sign of how far the rift has healed.

Security was tight throughout Beirut as helicopters buzzed overhead. No details were released about Friday's one-day summit, although Hezbollah Cabinet ministers were also expected to take part.

Hariri's death sparked massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," helping lead to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, ending almost three decades of Syrian domination.

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