French FM in Beirut in bid to ease political tensions

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French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived in Lebanon on Friday hoping to ease tensions between rival factions over a UN probe into the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Kouchner began his two-day visit by meeting President Michel Sleiman, an AFP correspondent said.

The French foreign ministry had said Kouchner would urge "restraint" and reaffirm Paris's support for the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain ex-premier.

"During this period of increased tensions, Bernard Kouchner will urge everyone to observe restraint and show responsibility," deputy foreign ministry spokeswoman Christine Farges said in Paris.

Kouchner will also reiterate France's support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) tasked with investigating Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination in a massive bombing, she said.

The French foreign minister will also meet the Lebanese prime minister and representatives of parliamentary blocs before wrapping up his visit on Saturday.

France has been a staunch backer of the STL, but the court has become the focus of a standoff between the Western-backed government coalition headed by Saad Hariri and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group Hezbollah.

There are unconfirmed reports that the court stands to indict members of Hezbollah in relation to Hariri's murder, and the group has rejected such an outcome and called for the Lebanese to boycott the work of the tribunal.

The crisis has raised fears of an outbreak of sectarian violence pitting Hariri's mainly Sunni supporters against the Shiite Hezbollah, by far the most powerful political and military force in the country.

Hezbollah charges the STL has been politicised and that any indictment against its members would be based on such testimony.

© 2010 AFP

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