French president starts talks with Lebanese officials

Visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy started talks Saturday with Lebanese officials focusing on the democracy and unity of the country, reported dpa.

Sarkozy, who is on a six-hour visit to Lebanon, started his talks with Lebanese officials at Lebanon's presidential Palace, east of Beirut.

According to a source close to the president, the talks will focus "on national dialogue among the rival groups to safeguard the country's independence and democracy."

Sarkozy is scheduled to meet some representatives of the 14 political parties in Lebanon, including the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, who leads the opposition against the ruling majority.

Sources at the Lebanese presidential palace said that some 70 Lebnese officials had been invited to the official lunch there.

Sarkozy is the first Western head of state to meet President Michel Suleiman since the former army chief was elected president on May 25. The election came in line with an Arab-brokered agreement, signed in Qatar last month, to end an 18-month political crisis that had brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war.

Sarkozy, who arrived to Lebanon from Greece, accompanied by Defence Minister Herve Morin, Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

He was also joined by France's main opposition leaders, Socialist Francois Hollande, the centrist Francois Bayrou, communist Marie- George Buffet and the left-wing radical leader Jean-Michel Baylet.

The ruling UMP party chief and its leader in parliament, Patrick Devedjian and Jean-Francois Cope, are also present, along with former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Sarkozy's office said he had invited opposition leaders to convey a "message of encouragement, of friendship and hope" as Lebanon emerges from months of sectarian strife.

"I am happy to be in Beirut. I came to congratulate President Suleiman and to tell him that Lebanon backs his election and support all factions in Lebanon," Sarkozy said on his arrival at Beirut Airport, adding, "The French-Lebanese are more consolidated than ever."

He praised the Doha agreement that ended the political deadlock in Lebanon and called for dialogue among all the Lebanese.

"France along with European community will back Lebanon in all aspects," Sarkozy said.

According to a source at the French embassy in Beirut, Sarkozy will not be able to visit French troops working with the United Nations Interim Forces in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL).

"Due to the president's tight schedule the French Defence Minister Herve Morin will visit the troops in southern Lebanon," the source confirmed.

In an interview with Lebanese dailies L'Orient-le jour, An Nahar and As Safir, Sarkozy said: "For too long the situation of blockage and crisis in Lebanon prevented the progressive resumption of a dialogue" but with the election of the new Lebanese president following the Doha accord, "Things are perhaps changing. In any case that is what I would like."

"One has to concede that the Doha accord, the election of President Suleiman and the return of Fouad Saniora as prime minister are such developments. I have drawn the conclusions and I have called Assad to tell him of my desire to see the continued implementation of the accord," he added.

But he continued: "Our demand for truth and justice concerning the political assassinations perpetrated in Lebanon is intact."

He was referring notably to the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, for which an international inquiry commission has blamed top officials of the Syrian security services.

Sarkozy said: "The international community is determined to help Lebanon turn the page on political assassinations. The setting up of a special tribunal is making rapid progress. This is an irreversible process and the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council apply to everybody."

Meanwhile the streets of Beirut were decorated with French and Lebanese flags as tight security measures were observed on main roads leading to Beirut airport and the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital.

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