GeriGündem French envoys meet Syria's Assad to boost ties (UPDATED)
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French envoys meet Syria's Assad to boost ties (UPDATED)

Two senior French envoys held "constructive" talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday aimed at bolstering diplomatic ties which soured over the crisis in Lebanon.

The meeting came ahead of a planned visit next month by Assad to Paris, the former colonial power in both Syria and Lebanon

Jean-David Levitte, chief diplomatic advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Claude Gueant, secretary general of Sarkozy's office, held talks with Assad and then Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. 

The meeting with Assad was "useful and constructive" and focused on diplomatic ties and Middle East developments, namely Lebanon and Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process, Syria’s official SANA news agency said.

The talks "reflected a common view on the need to reinforce French-Syrian relations to serve the interests of both countries," SANA said.

The French presidency issued a similar statement in Paris, adding the envoys delivered a message from Sarkozy to Assad.

Relations were damaged by charges of Syrian involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, a friend of then French president Jacques Chirac. Damascus has denied the claims.

Two months after the murder, Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon ending a military presence of nearly three decades.

But it has still come under repeated accusations from France and the United States of meddling in Lebanon through its supporters in the opposition, a charge also denied by Damascus.

After the election in May of a president in Lebanon under a power-sharing deal between rival politicians, Sarkozy moved to restore high-level contacts with Syria.  

He invited Assad to attend a July 14 national day military parade in Paris after a summit in the French capital to launch a new Mediterranean Union.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday voiced confidence that France would send the right message to Assad when he visits Paris, after her initial reservations shared by the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon.

"I dont have any doubt that any contact with Bashar al-Assad will be from our point of view contacts that communicate the right messages on what are shared French and American goals... in the Middle East."

US President George W. Bush and Sarkozy have jointly urged Syria to break ties with regional ally Iran, end its support for anti-Israeli militants, and set up formal diplomatic ties with Lebanon for the first time.

Elias Mourad, editor of the ruling party newspaper Al-Baath, told AFP that Syria could open an embassy in Beirut "after the formation of a Lebanese government of national unity."

Despite the election of former army Chief Michel Sleiman as Lebanese president in line with a deal hammered out in Doha last month, the creation of a cabinet has been held up by rows over the allocation of key portfolios.

SANA said Assad and the French envoys insisted "on the need to continue to encourage the Lebanese to implement the Doha agreement."

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, called for the speedy creation of a Lebanese government, during a visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Former Lebanese president and parliamentary majority member Amin Gemayel told a French newspaper that Paris was "in a bit of a hurry" to normalize ties with Assad and invite him to Paris.

Before welcoming Assad, "we would like France to obtain real guarantees from Syria about its behavior in Lebanon," Gemayel told Journal du Dimanche, blaming the delay in forming a government on Syria’s allies in Beirut.

In other diplomatic moves, Syria is due to hold a new round of indirect peace talks with Israel, three weeks after they announced the start of Turkish-mediated negotiations following an eight-year freeze.

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