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French Version

Lebanese trucks roll across Syrian border

Exported goods on the move after more than a month of waiting for a break in boundary deadlock

Lebanese trucks loaded with vegetables, fruit and industrial products crossed the Syrian border for the first time in more than a month following talks between Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Syrian officials on Sunday.

These trucks' cargoes are destined mainly for the Gulf region and Iraq. Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri has informed his Lebanese counterpart yesterday that orders were given to facilitate trucks' movement at the borders.

Security sources said hundreds of trucks that had been stranded at the border were moving across at a normal pace.

Trucks also started moving later on at the Aboudieh northern border post says Walid Zaatary, general director of New Express Transport Company which had approximately 80 Iraq-bound trucks stranded.

The president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists Fady Abboud hailed the last effort of the government, adding that thanks to Siniora's initiative, "everything seems to be moving smoothly." Abboud explained the successful outcome of Sunday's talks by stressing that "Syrians are not here to draw blood but were waiting for a minimum of government initiative."

Leading Lebanon's first government since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory, Siniora raised the issue of easing tough new border controls introduced by Damascus over the past month, which have inflicted major financial losses on Lebanese exporters, estimated to be around $1 million per day according to Abboud.

There was pressure on local prices for agricultural products as supply was piling up, said Antoine Hoayek, president of the Union of Farmer's syndicate. "These indirect costs on the sectors are important as they slow down the economy," said Hoayek, who notes that prices were down by more than half for certain products such as peaches and pears.

Syria had said the restrictions were a security measure after customs officials found explosives on a truck bound for its territory.

But the Lebanese saw them as retaliation for the anti-Syrian sentiment unleashed after the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a Beirut car bombing on February. Many Lebanese blamed Syria, which kept a tight grip on Lebanon's politics after the 1975-1990 Civil War, for the killing. Damascus denies any role.

Witnesses and security sources said at least 150 trucks had crossed the eastern Masnaa border post that is the main route to Damascus and over to Jordan and Iraq.

They said export traffic was also flowing smoothly through a northern crossing linked to Syria's coastal cities. Syria is Lebanon's only open land border and route to Arab markets, as the tiny country's border with Israel is closed.

Meanwhile, shipping company MSC saw an increase of 250 percent in freight by sea for the month of July. "We ship to Jeddah, for example, via the Said Port, for an approximate price of $1,400, which is probably a $100 more than usual land shipment" said MSC's director.

But these figures, says Abboud, do not consider the cost of transport from port to final destination. He added that this is not a viable alternative in the long-term, unless the port of Beirut lowers its operation costs. This can only happen if government decides to privatize the operations of the port, and opens new privatized ports such as in Tripoli and Jounieh, says Abboud, adding that currently "the state subsidizes inefficiency."

Beirut 01-08-2005
Bechir Saade
The Daily Star

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