(photo credit: )
France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner brought together rival Lebanese leaders for lunch at the French Embassy on Sunday, describing the meeting as a "success" and an encouraging sign.
The meeting came a day after Kouchner warned that Lebanon could face a new civil war if its feuding political chiefs failed to resolve the crisis threatening to tear the country apart.
France, the former colonial power, has encouraged dialogue between the Western-backed government of Fuad Saniora and the Hizbullah-led opposition, which are locked in a fierce power struggle. Kouchner's visit to Beirut is a follow-up to a conference hosted by France earlier this month to restart dialogue among Lebanon's 14 Christian and Muslim feuding factions.
The French foreign minister said at the time that the conference "broke the ice" but failed to produce any breakthrough in the eight-month deadlock between the government and opposition.
Kouchner spent the weekend meeting with Lebanese leaders from both camps, capping his efforts Sunday with the embassy luncheon that succeeded in bringing together rival leaders who have had no contact for months.
Most Lebanese leaders personally attended the luncheon, but Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri stayed away, opting instead to send representatives.
Kouchner said the talks were "difficult" but encouraging, although no breakthrough could be achieved.
"They (the leaders) talked to each other... and this time they did it in Beirut. That's progress," he said.
Kouchner said he had done all he could for now, but would return "in the coming days."
But, "We are not naive," he also said. "We know that much of Lebanon's fate is decided in neighboring countries, namely Syria and Iran," the foreign minister said.
Kouchner said that if Lebanese leaders decide to overcome their differences, then "all external influence will not be enough to keep an independent and democratic Lebanon from going forward."
The Hizbullah-led opposition has held street protests since Dec. 1 outside Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's office in Beirut. It wants to force him to resign or share power in a national unity Cabinet that would give the opposition veto power.
Saniora, backed by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority and the United States, rejects the opposition's demand.
Rival governments could emerge if Parliament fails to elect a new president before Nov. 25, when opposition-backed President Emile Lahoud must step down. Iran and Syria back the opposition, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the West support the Saniora government.
Kouchner said he would hold talks in Egypt later Sunday with the Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers as well as Arab league Chief Amr Moussa for further discussions on the Lebanese crisis.
"France could increase its efforts to prevent both Syria and Iran from exercising negative influence on Lebanon and to prevent war," Kouchner told reporters after discussing Lebanon's issues with Aboul Gheit, his Egyptian counterpart.
"But the Lebanese themselves are not in accord, and there is a problem of mistrust between them," he said.