French meet Syrians, urge free Lebanon election

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PARIS, Nov 5 (Reuters) France's relations with Syria will normalise if the presidential election in Lebanon this month takes place without interference and pressure, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said yesterday.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has broken with his predecessor's policy on Syria, saying he was prepared to hold high-level talks with Damascus if it backed French efforts aimed at ending the political crisis in Lebanon.

''If the election in Lebanon is taking place in good fashion, yes, then the relations between France and Syria will normalise,'' Kouchner told Europe 1 radio.

President Jacques Chirac had long blocked EU contacts with Syria over its alleged role in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

That has changed, and several senior French officials have met with Syrian government members over the past few days.

Kouchner met his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem in Istanbul on Friday and Sarkozy's office said the president's chief of staff Claude Gueant and his top diplomatic advisor Jean-David Levitte had met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus yesterday.

''This meeting is part of the efforts France has led for several months in favour of finding a solution to the crisis that Lebanon is going through at the moment,'' Sarkozy's spokesman, David Martinon, said in a statement.

''The Lebanese must have the possibility to choose their next president freely, without external pressure or interference, in a peaceful way and in the strict respect of the Lebanese constitution,'' he said.

Lebanon's presidential election was delayed last month until Nov 12 to allow time for pro- and anti-Syrian groups to find a compromise candidate to succeed pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whose term expires on Nov 23.

Agreement on a new president is seen 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.

If no president is elected before Lahoud's term expires, there are fears Lebanon could end up with two rival governments and even slide back into armed conflict.

Lebanon has been locked in political crisis since Hariri's assassination. A UN investigation implicated Syrian officials in the murder.

Reuters PBB RS0813

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