France names envoy to relaunch Syria-Israel talks

PARIS Fri Aug 6, 2010 8:14pm EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy has named a former French ambassador to the Middle East as a mediator between Israel and Syria in an effort to kick-start stalled peace talks, the French foreign ministry said on Friday.

A ministry spokesman said Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former ambassador to Damascus and Cairo, would take up the role.

"I can confirm that (Sarkozy) has charged Jean-Claude Cousseran with a mission concerning the relaunch of the Israeli-Syrian part of the (Middle East) peace process," the spokesman said.

"The countries concerned and our main partners have been informed of his appointment."

Tensions between Syria and Israel rose this year after Israeli President Shimon Perez accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month Israel remained interested in negotiating peace with Syria.

Damascus has also expressed willingness to return to the negotiating table, although President Bashar al Assad reiterated on Sunday he was unwilling to compromise on the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by the Israelis since 1967.

In a statement published in Syrian media, Assad said Israel was the one placing obstacles in the way of peace and that the possibility of war in the Middle East was once again increasing.

France's relations with Syria were strained by the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005. Initial U.N. reports implicated Syrian and Lebanese security agencies, but Damascus has said it had no hand in the bombing which killed Hariri and 22 others.

Paris has sought to improve ties with Damascus since 2008 with a view to encouraging talks with Israel, considered by France to be a key step toward peace in the Middle East, diplomatic sources say.

Turkey, traditionally Israel's only close Muslim ally, had for years acted as a mediator but its efforts were frustrated by regional tensions, notably over a three-week military offensive that the Jewish state launched in the Gaza Strip in late 2008.

In May, relations between Israel and Turkey were plunged into turmoil when Israeli forces killed nine Turks aboard an aid ship trying to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza.

(Reporting by Daniel Flynn)

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