Lebanese Factions Meet in France

Lebanon's rival parties are meeting Saturday for unusual, long-awaited talks as their nation remains in political deadlock and faces violence in both the north and south.

Lebanese Factions Meet in France
Members of the country's 14 leading parties -- including Hezbollah and its allies -- will gather in the chateau at Celle Saint-Cloud, southwest of Paris, on Saturday and Sunday behind closed doors, with no set agenda.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and a few other French officials will be there, too, but as observers, not mediators.

Hopes are not high for a breakthrough at the meeting, organized by the French Foreign Ministry. But participants say it's good news that it's happening at all.

It is the first time the 14 parties are meeting since a national dialogue conference in November that failed to resolve the tensions. Since then the country's worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war has deepened.

Parliament and government are barely functioning. The Western-backed prime minister, Fuad Saniora, and the Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian opposition are locked in a fierce power struggle. One of the opposition's key demands is the creation of a new national unity government in which it has veto power, a move Saniora has resisted.

The participants at this weekend's meetings are not the parties' leaders but a notch below.

Still, the talks will be closely followed in Lebanon for any sign of softening positions. And while success at the talks may be difficult to judge, failure would be certain to deepen the country's instability.

"It is already a step forward that the meeting is taking place," said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, representing pro-Western Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

A former colonial power, France has strong ties with some of the rival factions and hopes to use its leverage to encourage dialogue, but is keen not to be seen as dictating suggestions.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau said the meeting would allow Lebanese factions to "meet, discuss, break the ice" but without any "particular expectations."

"It is exceptional to be meeting again, after all the obstructions," said pro-Hezbollah participant Ibrahim Kenaan, representing Christian leader Michel Aoun.

Hezbollah and its allies decided to send participants to the talks despite French President Nicolas Sarkozy's comments that the Shiite Muslim group is a terrorist organization.

Sarkozy made the remarks during a meeting Monday with the families of three captive Israeli soldiers, including two seized by Hezbollah last summer. Sarkozy's spokesman, David Martinon, later said the president's goal was for the group to "renounce terrorist action and become a political party like any other."

The United States labels Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but the European Union does not.

Hezbollah is the largest single block in Lebanon's parliament. The resignation of Hezbollah's two Cabinet ministers last year, along with other ministers from the pro-Syrian opposition, threw the country into its current crisis. 


AP

Güncelleme Tarihi: 14 Temmuz 2007, 11:32
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