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French Version

Ban says Assad has pledged to help seal deal on Hariri court

Talks also covered possible un force along syrian border

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he had spoken "in depth" with Syrian President Bashar Assad during a visit to Damascus on Tuesday about a proposed tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and that the two leaders had discussed other issues, including the smuggling of arms over the Syrian-Lebanese border.

After the talks, the UN chief told Agence France Presse that he had asked Assad to use "his influence" to encourage Lebanese factions to arrive at an agreement on the formation of the court. Ban said that Assad told him the tribunal was a matter for the Lebanese to agree on among themselves, but that he would do what he could to foster a consensus.

On a one-day visit to the Syrian capital, Ban met with Assad, Vice President Farouq Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

Ban and Assad also discussed sending a "small technical team" from the UN to assess the possibility of deploying a UN Interim Force in Lebanon unit along the Lebanese-Syrian border, according to official Syrian sources.

The sources, quoted in a German News Agency report, said that Syria had agreed to the border demarcation with Lebanon "from the North to the South" and that Syria stood by a previous letter sent to the Lebanese government confirming the Lebanese identity of the Shebaa Farms.

Ban's talks with Assad addressed the Middle East peace process and the situations in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency, which reported that "consultations between Syria and the UN would continue" over regional issues.

Separately, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora advanced a proposal for a national unity government that would give the opposition 13 ministers in an expanded Cabinet of 30 - provided unspecified agreements were reached on the direction of the government.

Siniora was speaking to reporters Tuesday after receiving Saudi Ambassador Abdel Aziz Khoja and Youssef al-Rahma of the Saudi Popular Campaign for Relief of the Lebanese People. Siniora also met US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters from Doha on Tuesday, Ban said he would seek Assad's help in bringing about stability in Lebanon and would also seek Syrian cooperation on UN Security Council resolutions designed to disarm Hizbullah.

Ban was accompanied to Damascus by UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Geir Pedersen.

Syria has long said the tribunal was an internal Lebanese matter, despite reports issued by the UN commission investigating the Hariri assassination suggesting Syrian involvement.

Damascus has pledged to cooperate with Ban.

Syria has threatened to close its borders with Lebanon if "international forces" are dispatched to the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Siniora said Beirut was waiting to hear from Ban on the "framework and scope of operations" of the potential UN mission on the border.

The Syrian state newspaper Tishrin said in an editorial Tuesday that Ban would find "a lot of common ground that can be built on" with the Syrian side.

On the other hand, the editorial warned Ban that there were "red lines" which the United Nations should not cross. It cited an article in the UN Charter stipulating that "no mandate can be applied on regions which have become members of the United Nations. Relations between member states must be based on the principle of equality in sovereignty."

The Syrian daily Al-Watan commented: "If the goal ... is to convince Syria to accept the international tribunal and deployment of the international force, the results could be the same as those of UN legal adviser Nicolas Michel," whom the paper said failed to break the political deadlock in Lebanon in a visit last week.

Commenting on the 13+17 formula, Siniora said: "We put forward this idea because we are always searching for a way out and a path to a solution."

He added that once agreement was reached over policy "there should be no disagreement over numbers."

Siniora said that agreement had in fact been reached on numerous issues during national dialogue meetings prior to the summer 2006 war. He added that a seven-point plan drafted by the government after the war also garnered unanimous acceptance among the Lebanese.

"What we are saying is that all ways out of the crisis flow through a national unity government but one based on political consensus," Siniora said. Saudi endeavors to find a way out of the current crisis are continuing, he added.

Meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has warned that civil war could erupt in Lebanon when President Emile Lahoud's term expires in October, and he has urged Syria to help Lebanon achieve stability.

In a interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa published Tuesday, Faisal said stability in Lebanon was vital for peace throughout the region. He said Lebanon has a special role to play in the Middle East.

"Maybe that is why Israel has for years attacked [Lebanon], because it rejects the concept of a multi-religious state," Faisal said.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported Sunday that Syria is preparing for a military confrontation with Israel, which it said was the gist of what Israeli officials told US Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his visit. Gates' advice was to avoid diplomatic contact with Syria to maintain Washington's isolation of the Assad regime.

Beirut 25-04-2007
The Daily Star

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