Beirut: Lebanon`s government collapsed on Wednesday after the powerful Shiite party Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the cabinet over a UN 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 Sleiman also quit the 30-member cabinet, thus providing the minimum number of resignations needed to topple the government.
The collapse, which came as Hariri was holding talks in Washington with US President Barack Obama, plunged Lebanon into its worst political crisis since 2008.
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."
Hariri made no comment after his meeting with Obama and headed to Paris, where he was to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday, his office said.
In Paris, Sarkozy "reaffirmed his support for Lebanese authorities and institutions," a statement said.
Sarkozy voiced his support during a phone conversation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Elysee palace said.
For months, Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, has been pressing the Western-backed Hariri to disavow the STL on the grounds that it is part of a US-Israeli plot.
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 a news agency Hezbollah`s decision to quit the government was aimed at paralysing 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.
The Sunni premier has discussed the crisis in recent days in New York with Saudi King Abdullah, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sarkozy and UN 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."
"We believe that the work of the special tribunal must go forward, so justice can be served and impunity ended," she added.
Ban reiterated his "full support" for the STL, while urging dialogue among the rival Lebanese parties.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Hezbollah`s withdrawal was "extremely serious" and could have "grave implications" for stability across the Middle East.
He also expressed support for the STL, saying "justice needs to be done and there must be an end to impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon."
In a first reaction from an Arab government, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit called on the parties to exercise "restraint" and to "act within the framework of (the country`s) institutions to contain the crisis."
And Arab League chief Amr Mussa appealed to the country`s factions "not to close the door of dialogue and to focus on the supreme interest of the country in order to avoid all danger."
The standoff between Hariri`s camp and Hezbollah had virtually paralysed the government since its creation in November 2009 and sparked concerns of sectarian violence similar to that which brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.
In 2008 Qatar helped to mediate an end to an 18-month political standoff, but the country`s foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani, referred to that on Wednesday and said there "will be no Doha II."
Under the constitution, the president must consult with MPs and appoint a new premier to form a government. The prime minister is always a Sunni, and as Hariri is the most popular Sunni leader, he is likely to be reappointed.
The question is then whether he would accept.