Lebanese Ministers Angry With Chirac

Two Cabinet ministers on Saturday angrily accused French President Jacques Chirac (search) of supporting the Lebanese opposition's effort to unseat the pro-Syrian government, with one minister saying Chirac was leading the battle.

The harsh criticism followed Chirac's recent visit to Beirut (search), where he visited the family of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), a longtime friend.

Hariri died with 16 others in a massive bombing in Beirut on Monday. Opposition leaders and Hariri's supporters have blamed the Lebanese and Syrian governments for the assassination.

Both governments deny involvement, and the Lebanese government has accused the opposition of exploiting Hariri's slaying to reap political gains ahead of parliamentary elections expected by May.

A statement issued by Hariri's family following Chirac's visit Wednesday said the French president was in Lebanon on private visit to pay his condolences. He did not meet any Lebanese officials, the statement said.

On Saturday, however, Information Minister Elie Ferzli said Chirac met with opposition leaders during the seven-hour stop in Beirut.

"Jacques Chirac, president of France, is directly leading the battle in the Lebanese arena," Ferzli said in an interview broadcast by the Al-Arabiya satellite channel.

Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad also lashed out at Chirac, accusing him of inciting the opposition.

"Unfortunately, France's stance is the most extremist of all attitudes," said Murad in an interview with state-run Lebanon Television. "President Chirac came to Lebanon and completely ignored the government, the president and everyone. Then, he stood to encourage the opposition to step up" its campaign.

Chirac has said Hariri's assassination was a "heinous, indescribable act" and called for an international investigation, which the Lebanese government has rejected.

Opposition leaders escalated their campaign against the pro-Syrian government Friday, calling for a peaceful "uprising" to force the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon.

France and the United States backed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and stop interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs.

Since the resolution was adopted Sept. 2, the United States and France, which ruled Lebanon until its independence in 1943, have been calling on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and end its interference there.