Rice meets Syrian foreign minister on Lebanon

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ISTANBUL, Nov 3 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a rare meeting with Syria's foreign minister today as the West stepped up pressure on Damascus not to interfere in Lebanon's presidential election process.

The United States and France, Lebanon's former colonial power, have led international criticism of what they call Syria's constant meddling in its neighbour's affairs. Syria denies the accusations.

Officials made no comment on Rice's talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, held on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq in Istanbul.

Rice also discussed the Lebanon crisis at a meeting with the foreign ministers of France, Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries. No statement was made after those talks.

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had emphasised to Moualem in bilateral talks in Istanbul the importance of non-interference in Lebanon by outsiders.

''I warned Syria of the imperative need to allow the presidential election process to go ahead according to the constitution... without any external interference,'' Kouchner told reporters.

''A political vacuum in Lebanon serves the interests of neither Syria nor of the region.'' Kouchner said Moualem had signalled Damascus would be ready to open full diplomatic relations with Lebanon on certain conditions. ''I am doubtful... There's a little drop of optimism in an ocean of pessimism,'' Kouchner said.

Lebanon's presidential election has been postponed until November 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.

Agreement on a new president is regarded as vital to resolving Lebanon's most serious political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. It pits the Western-backed, anti-Syrian government against the opposition, led by pro-Syrian Hezbollah.

REUTERS AM KP2357

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