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French Version

Cousseran 'on road of conciliation' with Syria

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Wednesday France's decision to send a top diplomat for talks in Damascus this week is a "sign on the road of conciliation" with Syria.

Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former French ambassador to Syria, has been in the capital since Tuesday in the first high-level contact between the two countries in almost two years.

His visit was authorized after weekend talks in a Paris suburb among representatives of 14 Lebanese political parties.

The United States expressed skepticism Wednesday over France's decision to send a top diplomat for talks with Syria.

"There have been a number of different attempts at outreach by a number of different countries and different envoys to convince Syria that it should change its behavior," said US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "We are still waiting for that to happen."

He also accused Syria of being a source of instability in the region. "Obviously we all want to see Syria reorient its policies and change its behavior in the region. Thus far, they have chosen not to play a positive role."

But Kouchner told reporters at a news conference: "A certain number of obstacles [in the way of the talks] disappeared because Syria wanted it that way, and so long as there are positive signals like that we will continue to make contact with Syria."

"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."

Relations between France and Syria soured after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri. Damascus had been expecting a change in French attitude toward Syria with the election of President Nicolas Sarckozy in May.

The French envoy met both Vice President Farouk Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, briefing them on the results of recent inter-Lebanese talks hosted by France in Celle Saint Cloud outside Paris.

Cousseran discussed with Moallem French efforts to narrow the gap between the Lebanese parties and the outcome of the Paris talks. Syria's official SANA news agency quoted Sharaa as saying Damascus supported "any effort" to ease Lebanon's political crisis.

During the meeting with the French envoy, Moallem stressed Syria's utmost support for what the Lebanese agree upon toward resolving the crisis. He also expressed Syria's readiness to exert all efforts to help the Lebanese resolve their disputes based on respect of the Lebanese Constitution and the coexistence formula.

Cousseran told reporters after his talks with Moallem that the Syrian minister expressed his country's approval of France's mediation: "Mr. Moallem agreed that the French initiative has helped conduct dialogue between the Lebanese."

Cousseran is expected to head next week to Egypt, where he will meet Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abou al-Gheit and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on Thursday. The French envoy is also expected to visit Saudi Arabia.

MP Michel Murr headed to Egypt Wednesday on board a private plane with Arab League Ambassador Abdel-Rahman Solh, also to meet with Moussa.

Moussa was invited by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kushner to join the French mediation efforts. Kushner has said that the Lebanese parties have promised to continue dialogue and that he would visit Lebanon on July 28.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also expected to travel to Syria on Thursday and meet with Assad for talks aimed at reinforcing bilateral ties. Iranian state television's Web site reported that Ahmadinejad will go to Syria at Assad's invitation and will discuss the "expansion of bilateral ties in the most important international and regional issues."

Beirut 19-07-2007
The Daily Star

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