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French envoy discusses Lebanese political crisis in Syria

 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 Hezbollah.

 

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.

 

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"I hope I'm not wrong. In this region of the world, reversals and bad surprises are frequent."

 

The U.S. State Department commended the French efforts to reach out to Damascus.

 

"Obviously we all want to see Syria reorient its policies and change its behavior in a region where it has thus far not chosen to play a positive role," Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Wednesday.

 

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 Hezbollah-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.

 

Many in Lebanon and the West accuse Syria of involvement in Hariri's death, but Damascus has consistently denied the charge.

 

Lebanese local newspapers said Cousseran will travel to Egypt to meet with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abou Gheit and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who has also been trying to mediate an end to the Lebanese deadlock, as well as Saudi Arabia.

The Associated Press
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