French envoy discusses Lebanese political crisis in Syria

Visit marks highest profile French official to come to Damascus in nearly 2 years.

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July 18, 2007 18:16
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A French envoy discussed Lebanon's political crisis with officials in neighboring Syria on Wednesday, marking the highest-level visit by a French diplomat to Damascus in nearly two years. The envoy, Middle East expert Jean-Claude Cousseran, separately briefed Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on talks between representatives of rival Lebanese factions recently hosted by France. The talks, held last weekend near Paris, did not break the deadlock between Lebanon's Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition led by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah. But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said the parties promised to pursue discussions and that he would travel to Lebanon July 28. Obstacles surrounding the Lebanese talks last weekend had "disappeared," partly thanks to Syria, Kouchner said. "It seems to be a good sign on the road to calming things down," Kouchner told reporters Wednesday in Paris. "As long as there are positive signs, we will continue making contact with Syria. It's just the beginning," he said. "I hope I'm not wrong. In this region of the world, reversals and bad surprises are frequent." In brief comments to reporters after his meeting with al-Moallem, Cousseran said the Syrian minister stated his country's approval of France's mediation in the Lebanese crisis. Syria's official SANA news agency also quoted al-Sharaa as saying Damascus supported "any effort" to ease Lebanon's political crisis. Saniora's government is locked in a power struggle with the Hizbullah-led opposition. One of the opposition's key demands is the creation of a new national unity government in which it has veto power. The U.S.-backed Saniora has rejected the opposition's demand. Cousseran's visit represents the first such contact between Syria and France since President Nicolas Sarkozy took office last month and the highest-level visit by a French official to Syria in almost two years. Relations between France and Syria soured after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was a longtime personal friend of former French president Jacques Chirac.

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