Syrian, Lebanese presidents to meet in Paris

PARIS (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman will meet in Paris on Saturday ahead of a summit of EU and Mediterranean leaders, the French president’s office said on Friday.

It will be their first meeting since Suleiman was elected in May and comes after a prolonged period of tension between the two Arab neighbors.

Suleiman took office after a deal mediated by Qatar to end months of political stalemate between Lebanon’s ruling coalition and an opposition alliance led by Hezbollah — a group backed by Syria and Iran.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, will also attend the Assad, Suleiman meeting along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at 6 p.m. 1600 GMT. The four are expected to make a statement to the press afterwards.

France’s own relations with Syria have been troubled by accusations Damascus has fuelled tensions in Lebanon, but Assad told a French newspaper this week that his trip to Paris showed the mood was changing.

“This is an historic visit for me, an opening towards France and towards Europe,” Assad said.

Lebanon formed a unity government on Friday in which Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies hold effective veto power, a deal that should close a long political crisis that had threatened to plunge the country into a new civil war.

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