U.S. reopens consulate in Lebanon's capital after 19 years

Saturday, May 31, 2003

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The United States reopened its consulate Friday in Beirut, nearly 20 years after the office was closed following a bomb attack.

The consulate in a heavily fortified embassy compound in Aukar, a suburb of Beirut, will spare Lebanese from having to travel to Syria or Cyprus to apply for visas.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Candace Putnam said the reopening reflected an improved security situation within the country since the end of Lebanon's bloody 1975-1990 civil war.

"It's an indication that relations between U.S. and Lebanon are back to normal," Putnam told The Associated Press. The consulate was closed during "a time of war, and now is a time of peace," she added.

On April 18, 1983, a suicide car-bomber blew up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans.

Then on Sept. 20, 1984, a suicide bomber at the Aukar compound killed himself and 14 others -- prompting the closure of the consulate. The embassy, which was relocated there after the previous attack, remained at the site.

U.S. Ambassador Vincent Battle and Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican of Lebanese descent, attended the opening ceremony with Lebanon's ministers for public works and tourism.

The U.S. government decided to reopen the consulate despite the discovery earlier this year of a terrorist plot to kill Battle and attack the embassy.

Battle said the consulate was a "strong indication" of the U.S. government's commitment to strengthening ties with Lebanon.

Issa said the consulate would help foster closer economic ties between the countries.

"Most importantly, it will make a powerful statement to the people of this country that the United States views Lebanon as a sovereign, independent and free nation," he said.

Issa, who met Prime Minister Rafik Hariri earlier Friday, urged the Lebanese people to rally behind their state institutions and assert their sovereignty.

"They should not be manipulated by other countries or groups that operate outside the authority of their institutions," Issa said.

He appeared to be referring to Syria, which dominates Lebanese politics and stations about 20,000 troops in the country, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that frequently attacks Israel across the southern Lebanese border.

While the United States lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group, Lebanon regards it as a political party fighting Israeli occupation of a tiny piece of land in south Lebanon.

U.S. authorities believe Hezbollah, acting on Iran's orders, carried out the 1983 terrorist bombing in Beirut that killed 241 American Marines.

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