US officials return to Lebanon after Damascus talks

Two US envoys to the Middle East held talks Sunday with high-ranking Lebanese Muslim clergymen and other leaders, following a one-day visit to Syria during the weekend, dpa reported.

Jeffrey Feltman, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, a senior director at the National Security Council, held talks with the Sunni Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani and the country's highest Shiite, authority Sheikh Abdel Amir Qabalan.

Qabalan, after his meeting with the US officials, welcomed the US administration's steps to open dialogue with Syria. He said that peace and stability in the Middle East can be achieved through "non-stop talks between the United States and both Iran and Syria."

Qabalan called on the US administration to "open communication channels with Hezbollah and Hamas."

For his part, Qabbani stressed the need "for a collective effort in Lebanon to help maintain stability and avoid being driven into civil strife."

"We want a safe and stable Lebanon for the sake of Lebanon's people and the good of the Arab world," he said.

"We are careful not to allow Lebanon to be dragged into regional conflicts that can only bring harm to all."

The two US officials had held on Friday talks with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Fouad Seniora.

Feltman, following talks with Syrian Foreign minsiter Walid Muallem on Saturday stressed that "Syria can play an important and constructive role in the region."

Syrian-US ties deteriorated after Washington withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The US blamed Syria for the killing. Damascus denied any role.

US President Barak Obama has pledged to engage countries that have been at odds with Washington as part of his plans to bolster US diplomacy. Feltman would not discuss details of the more than three hours of meetings, but said there was a desire to work through differences between the two countries.

Syria remains on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism for its alleged ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The visit to Damascus by the two American envoys, came after US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the Middle East to explore ways to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a top priority of the new Obama administration.

The US envoys are scheduled to meet with the head of the Christian Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea and other Lebanese politicians later Sunday, before returning to the US.

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