Lebanon's government collapsed on Wednesday after the powerful Shiite party Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the cabinet over a U.N. probe into the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told a press conference 10 ministers had resigned because of a long-running dispute with Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- son of the slain leader -- over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
An 11th minister close to President Michel Suleiman also quit the 30-member cabinet, thus providing the minimum number of resignations needed to topple the government.
The collapse came as Hariri was holding talks in Washington with US President Barack Obama on the crisis and plunged Lebanon into its worst political crisis since 2008.
Hariri made no comment after the talks but headed to Paris, where he was to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday, his office said.
The White House accused Hezbollah of acting out of "fear" and commended Hariri "for his steadfast leadership and efforts to reach peace, stability, and consensus in Lebanon under difficult circumstances."
For months, Hezbollah and its allies have been pressing Hariri to disavow the STL on the grounds that it is part of a US-Israeli plot.
On Tuesday, Hezbollah's camp, which is backed by Iran and Syria, had given the Western-backed Hariri until Wednesday to convene a cabinet meeting on the tribunal.
According to unconfirmed press reports, the STL is poised to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination, a move the militant party vehemently rejects.
Environment Minister Mohammad Rahhal, who is close to Hariri, told AFP Hezbollah's decision to quit the government was aimed at paralyzing the state and forcing the premier to reject the tribunal.
"They think that by piling the pressure on him, Hariri will bend but they are mistaken," Rahhal said.
Obama expresses solidarity
Obama expressed solidarity with al-Hariri in talks on Wednesday amid the collapse of his coalition government in Beirut.
Obama and Hariri urged all parties to refrain from causing further instability, and the White House charged that Hezbollah's withdrawal from Lebanon's government showed its "own fear."
Obama also stressed the importance of a U.N. special tribunal "to help end the era of political assassinations with impunity in Lebanon."
Ministers from the Hezbollah Islamist movement and its allies resigned while Hariri met Obama at the White House, toppling the government before expected indictments against the Shi'ite group over the 2005 killing of Hariri's father.
Hariri cut his trip short and flew back to Lebanon right after talks with Obama.
"The efforts by the Hezbollah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government's ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people," the White House said in a statement.
"The president and prime minister reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, implementing all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and continuing a wide-ranging and long-term partnership between the United States and Lebanon," it said.
"The president and prime minister specifically discussed united efforts with France, Saudi Arabia, and other key international and regional actors to maintain calm in Lebanon and ensure that the work of the
Tribunal continues unimpeded by third parties," the White House said. "All parties should avoid threats or actions that could cause instability."
The Sunni premier has discussed the crisis in recent days in New York with Saudi King Abdullah, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sarkozy and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Clinton, who was in Qatar on Wednesday, said Hezbollah's attempt to undermine stability in Lebanon was bound to fail.
"We view what happened today as a transparent effort by those forces inside Lebanon, as well as interests outside Lebanon, to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon's stability and progress," Clinton said.
"Trying to bring the government down as a way to undermine the special tribunal is an abdication of responsibility, but it also will not work."
Under Obama, the United States has ramped up military aid to Lebanon to help beef up the Lebanese army as a counterweight to Hezbollah, an enemy of neighboring Israel, and has tried to shore up Hariri's fragile government.
For months, Syria and Saudi Arabia have been attempting to mediate the crisis but their efforts have failed, with the rival Lebanese camps accusing each other of refusing to compromise.
The standoff between Hariri's camp and Hezbollah had paralyzed the government for months and sparked concerns of sectarian violence similar to that which brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.
Bassil, a member of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement allied with Hezbollah, told AFP that it was now up to the president to begin consultations on forming a new government as soon as possible.
Under the constitution, the president must consult with MPs and appoint a new premier to form a government. In Lebanon, the prime minister is always a Sunni, and as Hariri is the most popular Sunni leader, he will likely be reappointed unless he refuses.
"We're taking it step by step, but with today's decision, we spared Lebanon more unrest," he said.
Wednesday's government collapse echoed a similar crisis in 2006 that paralyzed the country for 18 months, bringing it to the brink of civil war.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday threw his "full support" behind the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri despite the collapse of the government led by Hariri's son.
"The secretary general is monitoring closely developments in Lebanon, where the situation is fast evolving," said spokesman Martin Nesirky in a statement.
"He emphasizes the importance that calm be preserved. The secretary general further calls for continuing dialogue among all parties and respect for the constitution and the laws of Lebanon. He reiterates his full support for the independent work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon," Nesirky added.
Britain said Hezbollah's withdrawal from the Lebanese government was "extremely serious" and could have "grave implications" for stability across the Middle East.
Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned any attempt to undermine the United Nations probe into the assassination Hariri.
"This is an extremely serious development which could have grave implications for Lebanon and for regional stability," Hague said in a statement.
"I call on all parties to work together for a peaceful resolution of the crisis caused by Hezbollah's decision to withdraw from government."
He added: "I condemn the continuing attempts to undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which must be allowed to carry out its work without hindrance or impediment.
"Justice needs to be done and there must be an end to impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon."