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    Aoun, Berri, Hariri celebrate Independence Day

     Lebanon’s three top leaders gathered Wednesday to celebrate the country’s 74th Independence Day, meeting for the first time since Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation earlier in the month.
    President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri assembled at Shafiq Wazzan Avenue in Beirut’s Central District, where military parade maneuvers began at 9:20 a.m. and ended an hour later.
    Berri and Hariri arrived separately just before 9 a.m. and were received by Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, Lebanese Army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun and Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hatem Mallak.
    Hariri was greeted with applause and headed towards the stand, where he was then joined by Berri. The two shook hands to mark their first meeting in 18 days.
    Aoun arrived at around 9 a.m. and was welcomed with the firing of 21 blank artillery shells. Before processing through the assembled military forces in the back of an open military jeep, Aoun placed wreaths on a memorial statue.
    The president then headed towards the podium prepared for the three leaders, joining Berri and Hariri. Kissing the premier on the cheek and speaking quietly in his ear, Aoun appeared to have whispered: “Thank God for your safe return.”
    A reception for the occasion was set to be held at Baabda Palace, following the parade.
    The independence celebrations come amidst the ongoing political crisis precipitated by Hariri’s unexpected resignation announcement.
    Tight security measures were taken within the capital’s Central District Wednesday, with Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces personnel on guard to maintain a security buffer zone around the parade. Certain roads within the area and those at the perimeter of central Beirut were blocked, prompting citizens to take a detour.
    The meeting between Hariri, Berri and Aoun was the initial first-hand interaction between the three men since Hariri announced his resignation from premiership on Nov. 4 from Riyadh.
    Hariri arrived to Lebanon late Tuesday night to partake in the ceremony, and is expected to meet separately with Aoun either after the festivities or Thursday.
    Aoun has said he will not accept Hariri’s resignation until the latter presents his decision to the president on Lebanese soil.
    General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and other security, political and religious figures arrived to participate in the celebrations as 9 a.m. approached.
    Soon after the three leaders had assembled, balloons in the colors of the Lebanese flag were released, filling the sky above Beirut and signaling the beginning of the parade.
    Various brigades marched before the country’s dignitaries, joined by members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
    Wednesday’s celebrations were significant not only politically, but also because they came months after the Army launched the “Fajr al-Joroud” offensive, which liberated the outskirts of the northeastern border towns of Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbeck from Daesh (ISIS) militants.


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