France's Kouchner resumes mediation in Lebanon crisis

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BEIRUT, Nov 13 (Reuters) French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met feuding Lebanese leaders today to help them resolve a political impasse over a delayed presidential election that is threatening Lebanon's stability.

The Lebanese presidential election is the latest obstacle in a year-old political crisis pitting the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the opposition, led by pro-Syrian Hezbollah.

Kouchner's main focus in his 24-hour trip to Beirut is to nudge fiercely divided Maronite Christians towards agreement on a compromise presidential candidate. The president has to be a Maronite according to Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system.

Kouchner met Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir who described the meeting as ''very positive''.

France has been at the forefront of an intensive mediation drive to try to resolve the political crisis which is Lebanon's worst since the end of the civil war 17 years ago.

The parliamentary session to elect a president was delayed for the third time last week until November 21 to give rival leaders more time to break the deadlock over a consensus candidate.

Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ends on November 23.

There are fears Lebanon could plunge into chaos and confrontation if no president is elected by that time, especially since the rival camps are threatening to take unilateral measures.

Leading members of the anti-Syrian governing coalition have said their MPs, who have a slim parliamentary majority, have the right to gather in Lahoud's final 10 days in power to elect a president without a two-thirds quorum.

Hezbollah has said such a move would be tantamount to a coup and the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called on Lahoud to take action if rival leaders are unable to agree on a consensus president. He appeared to be backing a suggestion that Lahoud form a parallel government.

Kouchner is also expected to meet Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who has the power to delay parliamentary sessions, Siniora, and a number of Lebanese lawmakers including leader of the anti-Syrian coalition Saad al-Hariri.

Saad is the son and political heir of the late former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri who was assassinated in 2005, a killing that anti-Syrian figures have blamed on Syria. Damascus denies any links to the assassination.

US President George W Bush, in a call to Siniora yesterday, urged Lebanon to hold the election in line with its constitution and without allowing Syrian interference.


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