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(photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanon's rival parties met in a French chateau Saturday for unusual and long-awaited talks meant to break the ice among foes mired in a political and sectarian crisis threatening to tear their country apart.
The closed-door meetings, organized by France with US and Iranian approval, were not expected to end the political deadlock between the Western-backed prime minister and the Hizbullah-led opposition. But participants called it good news that the talks were happening at all.
"It is exceptional to be meeting again, after all the obstructions," said pro-Hizbullah legislator Ibrahim Kenaan, representing Christian leader Michel Aoun. "I think we can have real dialogue."
Meanwhile, French intelligence has warned the Mossad not to try to kidnap or assassinate senior Hizbullah officials who are participating in the conference, Kuwait's Al-Siyassah newspaper reported on Saturday.
According to the report, senior members of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government contacted associates of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and warned that any such an action on French soil would harm French-Israeli relations.
The report said that French intelligence had been alerted to the plan by sources in Israel and Arab countries. Israel reportedly intended to use the captured Hizbullah representatives as bargaining chips to secure the release of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were kidnapped by the guerrilla organization a year ago.
Al-Siyassah reported that Hizbullah officials to be targeted by the Mossad included former minister Mahmoud Panish and Najaf al-Mosawi, who represents Hizbullah internationally.
The meetings between Lebanon's rival factions mark the first time all 14 parties have come together since a national dialogue conference in November that failed to resolve the tensions. Since then, the country's worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war has deepened.
The talks were not expected to end the political deadlock between Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Hizbullah-led opposition.
In fact, Hizbullah almost backed out of the weekend talks, after Sarkozy's comments this week that the Shi'ite Muslim group was a terrorist organization. Sarkozy's office later "clarified" his statement.
France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, is playing a delicate diplomatic game in the volatile region. French envoys discussed plans for the meetings with American and Iranian counterparts - and won their grudging approval - but came under criticism for not vetting them with Syria, Lebanon's longtime overseer.
France has strong ties with some of the rival factions and hopes to use its leverage to encourage dialogue, but is keen not to be seen as dictating suggestions.
The talks have no set agenda. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and other French diplomats were there, but as observers, not mediators. Critics say France and Kouchner are just seeking the limelight, since no one is expecting a breakthrough at the talks.
But they will be closely followed in Lebanon for any sign of softening positions - or failure, which would be certain to deepen the country's instability.
"It is already a step forward that the meeting is taking place," said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, representing pro-Western Druse leader Walid Jumblatt.
"We shouldn't set ambitions that are too high. But the French have had success where others have not," he said.
During last summer's war between Hizbullah and Israel, France was instrumental in getting the UN resolution for a cease-fire and fortified peacekeeping force for Lebanon.