US official plans talks with France on Lebanon

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WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) The Bush administration's key diplomat on Lebanon will meet his French counterpart this week to discuss Lebanon's presidential deadlock and efforts to stem Syrian involvement, the State Department said today.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, will meet French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran as well as officials from the French president's office during a brief visit to Paris tomorrow.

''The meetings in Paris will seek to further strengthen the already strong international support for Lebanese sovereignty and underline our insistence that the Lebanese presidential election must go forward without threat and foreign interference,'' said a State Department spokesman, who was not authorised to be named.

''We are concerned about the ongoing, sustained and pernicious influence of Syria and its Lebanese allies in Lebanon,'' he added.

The United States accuses Syria of constant meddling in its neighbor's affairs, particularly before the presidential election.

Syria denies these charges.

Lebanon's presidential election was postponed last week by parliament until Nov. 12 to allow more time for rival pro-and anti-Syrian groups to agree on a compromise candidate to be elected by parliament to replace pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud whose term expires on November 23.

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity to get both sides to resolve the presidential deadlock. There are fears that if no president is elected before the term of Lahoud expires then Lebanon would end up with two rival governments and more bloodshed.

After talks in Paris, Welch will go to Jerusalem where envoys from the quartet of Middle East peace brokers are set to meet on Thursday ahead of a visit this weekend to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The quartet comprises the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

REUTERS RJ BD2247

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