Lebanon rivals in France seeking end to crisis

Rival Lebanese politicians met at a state-owned chateau near Paris on Saturday in a French-sponsored attempt to discuss ways of ending the eight-month-old political crisis gripping their country.French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, hosting the closed-door two-day meeting at the Chateau de Celle-Saint Cloud, first addressed the gathering with a few words in Arabic.

“The minister made an opening statement and then there was a round during which everybody expressed their point of view,” a ministry spokeswoman said.

The delegates will dine together and resume their talks on Sunday, ending with a news conference in the evening.

About 30 politicians representing parties across Lebanon’s broad political spectrum are at the meeting as well as some civic society leaders.

Among the guests are representatives of the Shiite group Hizbollah, making its first official visit to France.

Hizbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel last year and still holds captive two Israeli soldiers, nearly cancelled its participation after French President Nicolas Sarkozy linked the group to terrorism.

“At first we planned to renounce going to Paris because such comments are biased. But a clarifying statement by the French authorities has since rectified things,” Hizbollah delegation leader and former energy minister Mohammad Fneish told Le Figaro newspaper.

The talks could only succeed if all parties accepted the others as partners, he said.

The Jewish organisation CRIF placed advertisements in French newspapers saying Hizbollah was not welcome, and urged the government to put pressure on it to release the two Israelis.

Lebanon has been paralysed by the crisis that erupted last November when six opposition ministers quit the government over Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s refusal to give the Hizbollah-led opposition veto power in his Western-backed Cabinet.

All efforts to break the impasse have failed and with a divided parliament set to elect a new president from September 24, former colonial power France intervened.

Many in Beirut fear that if no compromise is reached before the presidential election, Lebanon will be plunged into a power vacuum or be saddled with two rival administrations.

The country has been in turmoil since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and the hurried pullout of Syrian forces after a 29-year presence.

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