France, US press for Syrian exit from Lebanon

1st March 2005, Comments 0 comments

LONDON, March 1 (AFP) - France and the United States spearheaded a major effort Tuesday to drive Syrian troops out of embattled Lebanon and pave the way for free elections under the watchful eyes of an international force.

LONDON, March 1 (AFP) - France and the United States spearheaded a major effort Tuesday to drive Syrian troops out of embattled Lebanon and pave the way for free elections under the watchful eyes of an international force.

In a rare display of unity, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the holding of free and fair elections there.

"We fully support the Lebanese people in their pursuit of an independent, democratic and sovereign Lebanon, free of outside interference and intimidation," they said in a joint statement on the sidelines of a meeting on Palestinian reforms in London.

They said their presidents - George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac - had "instructed us to work urgently together and with the international community to help realize that fundamental goal".

Seen to be seizing the opportunity arising from the dramatic collapse of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon in the face of mass public protests, the foreign ministers pushed for internationally-observed elections within the first half of this year.

The Lebanese "must have the opportunity to chart their own course through free and fair parliamentary elections this spring, bolstered by an international observer presence prior to and during the elections," the ministers said.

A US State Department official said Washington was considering helping the Lebanese government exert greater control of the country.

"We know how difficult it might be for the Lebanese government to extend its authority throughout Lebanon and we would be looking for a range of things in order to help them," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Asked whether security assistance would be part of the offer, the official said: "Well, there are various kinds of things we might do."

The United States and France sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559 passed last year which calls for an end to foreign interference in Lebanon and a withdrawal of foreign troops although it stops short of mentioning Syria.

But Rice sharply rebuked Syria Tuesday, implicating it in a deadly suicide attack in Tel Aviv last week that threatened Isreali-Palestinian peace efforts.

She accused Syria of harbouring the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which was pinned down by Israel for the attack.

"There is evidence that Islamic Jihad, headquartered in Syria, was in fact involved with the planning of those attacks in Tel Aviv," Rice said in an interview in London with US broadcasting network ABC News. "And so the Syrians have a lot to answer for."

Syria has not given any firm undertaking it would comply with the UN resolution and withdraw its troops from Lebanon, insisting it and Beirut remain bound by a prior agreement, the Taef accord of 1989, which foresaw a more gradual pullback with each stage approved by the two governments.

Rice was also at pains to make it clear Tuesday that the United States and France were moving in tandem over the Lebanese issue, unlike their divided stand on Iraq.

"We had a very good discussion on Lebanon and that is why we want to appear here together," she said, alongside Barnier.

In a strong signal that Syria must leave Lebanon immediately, Barnier said there could be "absolutely no excuse for postponing the implementation" of Resolution 1559.

Asked on possible deployment of UN troops to fill a security vacuum in Lebanon should the Syrians leave, Rice said a meeting Tuesday with UN officials would "examine what more needs to be done."

Rice and Barnier also strongly reaffirmed the international community's call for a "full, credible and transparent investigation into the terrorist murder" of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Syria has been implicated in the killing, which has sparked a political crisis in Lebanon leading to the dramatic resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karameh in the face of massive public protests. Damascus has denied any involvement.

The United States, which ratcheted up the pressure on Syria following the killing of Hariri in a massive bomb blast two weeks ago, lauded Karameh's announcement as the fruit of a "Cedar Revolution" against Syria's political and military dominance.


Subject: French News

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