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French Version

BBC back in Beirut after 15-year hiatus

UK media giant seeds bureau with 2 local correspondents

The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) reopened its Lebanon Bureau this month after a 15-year break that began in the early 1990s.

Two local correspondents - Kim Ghattas for the English news service and Nada Abdel Samad for an Arabic news service to be launched in 2007 - will cover Lebanon and Syria from the new downtown headquarters in Riad al-Solh square, occupying the same building as the Associated Press.

In a homecoming of sorts, one of the BBC's most seasoned Middle East correspondents, Jim Muir, will report regional politics from Beirut after an almost three-decade hiatus. The peripatetic, self-proclaimed "Arabist" moved on to stints managing the BBC's regional branches in Cairo and Tehran after "it went quiet in the 90's around the time of Taif."

"I reported all major events in Lebanon in the 70's and 80's, but I had to leave (for Cyprus) in 1980 because I was on a Syrian hit list," Muir told the Daily Star at Tuesday's reception at the new headquarters.

"When I first came here in 1975, I landed behind the Cinema Orient and could see immediately that Beirut was just so full of life, and then it became a battle field obviously. Now the country has come back to life, and the new downtown is a symbol of this," Muir said.

The BBC has continued to report from Lebanon despite the closure of its Beirut offices through a combination of local and visiting journalists. Its new Lebanon desk will be bigger than the Amman office, where it has a minimal presence, but smaller that the regional hub in Cairo, and - depending on the security situation - its branches in Baghdad and Jerusalem. But Simon Wilson, the editor of the BBC's Middle East Bureau, aims to expand the networks' Middle East operations eventually.

"My ambition in the future will be to open a bureau in Damascus for the Arabic News Service, but at the moment this is the appropriate size for covering the two countries, and if there is a big story other regional correspondents can come to support Nada and Kim," he said.

Wilson acknowledged that the timing of the decision to reopen the BBC's Lebanon desk was influenced by the political developments following former Premier Rafik Hariri's assassination and the Syrian withdrawal, though he is careful to emphasize that "we never completely left."

"This is a big vote of confidence in Beirut and our team here," Wilson said.

"We think Lebanon is at a crossroads right now, politically, socially, and geographically."

Beirut,06 06 2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star
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