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(photo credit: Channel 10)
Following a two-day, round-table summit outside of Paris representing 14 different Lebanese factions, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, declared Monday that he "understands" that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were kidnapped by Hizbullah last summer, are alive.
"I raised the question," Kouchner said, and added that he had received an assurance that the negotiations, which he described as in good standing, would continue.
Hizbullah has denied the top diplomat's claim that he received information on the fate of the kidnapped soldiers, the Lebanese Al-Akhbar paper said on Monday.
A Hizbullah source also said that negotiations for the troops' release were being held up due to Israel's stubbornness. According to the source, Hizbullah representatives in Paris had only told Kouchner that the negotiations were the purview of the UN, and nothing more.
While there have been some reports that the French government has taken advantage of face-to-face meetings with Hizbullah to speed up the process, senior French Foreign Ministry officials told The Jerusalem Post following the meetings, that no deals had been hammered out between the French government and the Syrian-backed Shi'ite group. But they confirmed that the fate of the soldiers had been discussed.
"While that would be an ideal outcome, I am sad to say, however, that the reports are false. There is nothing that would point in that direction at the moment," the source said from Paris.
According to Sylvain Semhoun, Israel's representative in the French Jewish community as well as for President Nicolas Sarkozy's party, the inclusion of Hizbullah in the discussions held at Chateau Celle Saint-Cloud sparked a backlash in both Israel and in France. Semhoun said both communities were "shocked."
"I can only say what French voters living in Israel are saying, and that is that France seems to have a short memory for their assassinated children," he said, referring to the 58 French soldiers killed in a Hizbullah suicide attack in 1983.
The French Foreign Ministry, however, stressed the necessity of having representatives of "all of Lebanon's political and civil divide" on hand, but, as one French official explained to the Post, was the government's way of "keeping clean."
Hizbullah, meanwhile, took advantage of the limelight at the conference to warn Israel against future attacks.
Hizbullah's representative at the conference, Muhammad Fneish, told the French daily Le Figaro that in the event that a conflict with Israel materialized, the "arsenal available to Hizbullah [was] sufficient [to meet the threat.]"
Fneish also said that the reason Hizbullah had kidnapped Goldwasser and Regev was to use them as a bargaining chip for the release of Hizbullah prisoners held by Israel. "But [the kidnapping] was used as a pretext to start an offensive premeditated by Israel and the United States," he said.
Debate over whether or not to recognize Hizbullah as a terrorist organization continues in the European parliament, and in France in particular.
"If they were a pacifist organization, they would not have done what they did last summer," one French official told the Post. Former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, who served under former president Jacques Chirac, officially categorized Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. "At least Jospin recognizes that and can stand up and say it," Semhoun said. "He has been here and has seen with his own eyes what Hizbullah is all about."
Sources in Beirut reported that the Paris talks ended on Sunday night without results, while Kouchner was slightly more optimistic, saying that there had been some "important advances in dialogue," and added that the participants had all agreed on their commitment to Lebanon as an independent state, and "refused any form of foreign interference."
Kouchner announced that he would be visiting Beirut on July 28 to continue attempts to solve Lebanon's political crisis and "witness the progress made at the Paris talks."
Kouchner has invited Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa to join him in Lebanon.
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