Rice tells Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon

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WASHINGTON, Nov 21 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Syria today to stop interfering in Lebanon's stalled election process and allow its neighbor to chose a new president without intimidation.

Rice said she telephoned France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has been in Beirut since Sunday trying to resolve the presidential crisis, as well as Arab League chief Amr Moussa, today to discuss how to break the deadlock.

''The Lebanese need to be able to carry out their constitutional processes here,'' said Rice of the stalled presidential vote.

''It really ought to be decided without foreign interference and certainly without any foreign intimidation. Those messages have been very clearly sent,'' Rice told reporters.

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

Lebanon's presidential vote in parliament has been postponed four times to allow pro- and anti-Syrian groups to agree on a compromise candidate to replace pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud whose term expires on Nov. 23.

Agreement on a new president is seen 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.

Rice held a rare meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem this month on the sidelines of an Iraq conference in Istanbul and delivered a firm message to Damascus.

''You hear all the time that Syria says that it wants to improve relations with the Arab world, wants to improve relations with the United States. Well, stepping back and letting the Lebanese choose a president for Lebanon would be an awfully good start,'' Rice said.

Asked whether she thought there had been any change in Syrian behavior since her meeting with the Syrian minister, Rice replied: ''No.'' Despite tensions over Lebanon, the United States has invited Syria to attend a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland on Nov. 27.

Syria has not yet indicated whether it will come but has made clear it will only attend if there is discussion of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from it in the 1967 West Asia war.

REUTERS RSA KN2308

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