Sarkozy Urges Healing On Post-Crisis Lebanon Visit


Beirut : French President Nicolas Sarkozy stressed his country’s support for newly elected Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and for reconciliation through dialogue, during a brief visit to Beirut on Saturday.

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A source close to the French leader’s office, meanwhile, said two senior envoys would soon visit Syria, as ties which Paris suspended last year during a protracted political crisis in Beirut start to thaw between the two countries.

Sarkozy, the first Western head of state to visit Lebanon since Sleiman took office at the end of May, said the former army chief had “a great responsibility to drive this national reconciliation forward.”

“It is essential that all Lebanese political forces display their commitment to dialogue,” he added at a luncheon at the presidential palace with Sleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and representatives of all major Lebanese political factions.

Lebanon has endured a tense 18-month political crisis that drove it to the brink of civil war in early May.

After 65 people were killed in sectarian violence, rival factions reached a deal in Doha on May 21 that led to the election of then army chief and consensus candidate Sleiman after a six-month vacuum in the presidency.

Sleiman himself said the “Doha agreement, in which France took part, has regenerated long-awaited and desired political stability.”

Even so, the anti-Syrian ruling bloc, backed by the West and most Arab states, and the Hezbollah-led opposition continue to squabble over the formation of a new government. Sarkozy said that “once the institutions have stabilised, (Lebanon) must address the reconstruction of the state and the economy’s dynamism to open up to reforms.”

He said France remained “committed to strengthening the capacities of the Lebanese army within the framework of a national defence strategy to be established through sincere dialogue … that can no longer be delayed.”

His office said France would provide training to the army as part of its economic assistance.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who was also in Sarkozy’s delegation, is to return to Beirut at the head of an economic delegation to help with the country’s reconstruction, French officials said.

On the regional front, the president said “a new page may be opening” in relations with Damascus.

France is the former colonial power in both Lebanon and neighbouring Syria, which for decades was the powerbroker in Beirut.

In an interview with Lebanese dailies, Sarkozy recalled Paris had said it “would resume contacts with Syria only when positive, concrete developments occurred in Lebanon with a view to getting out of the crisis.

“One has to concede that the Doha accord, the election of President Sleiman and the return of Fuad Siniora as prime minister are such developments,” he said.

He added, however, that “our demand for truth and justice concerning the political assassinations perpetrated in Lebanon is intact.”

Sarkozy was referring in particular to the 2005 slaying of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, in which Syria was widely implicated. Damascus has denied any link to the killings.

The president expressed his commitment to an international tribunal to try those eventually accused of Hariri’s assassination.

“The assassins must know that they have to pay,” he said at the luncheon before flying out.

A planned visit by Sarkozy to his country’s contingent in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in the south of the country was called off to keep the five-hour mission “purely political”, according to his office.

Instead, Defence Minister Herve Morin called on France’s contingent of 1,800 peacekeepers, UNIFIL’s second largest, paying tribute to their “difficult mission” in a “fragile context” since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Violence across the country over the past year “shows us that nothing has been definitively resolved yet and that peace has not yet been fully achieved”, said Morin.

Dozens gathered on Beirut’s airport road when Sarkozy flew in to call for the release of Lebanese prisoner George Ibrahim Abdullah, serving a life sentence for the 1982 Paris murders of two diplomats.

The last official visit by a French president was in 2002, when Jacques Chirac took part in a Beirut summit of French-speaking states.

Sarkozy’s office said he was planning a 2009 visit to Lebanon with wife Carla Bruni.