Sarkozy breaks silence to urge international action in Syria

PARIS Wed Aug 8, 2012 1:59pm EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy called on Wednesday for rapid international intervention in Syria, likening its conflict to the early days of war in Libya in which he mobilized NATO-led action that helped rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi.

Breaking a long silence since losing May's presidential election to Socialist Francois Hollande, Sarkozy said he had spoken at length to Syrian opposition leader Abdulbaset Sieda this week and they agreed on the need for foreign intervention in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"They noted a total convergence in their views on the seriousness of the Syrian crisis as well as the need for rapid action by the international community to avoid massacres," said the statement signed by Sarkozy and Sieda, who is president of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council.

"They agreed that there are great similarities with the Libyan crisis," said the statement.

After three months away from public life, Sarkozy's message appeared designed to increase pressure on Hollande to engage more openly with Syrian opposition groups.

It came days after French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who prodded Sarkozy to help Libya's rebels last year and became his unofficial adviser in the crisis, slammed Hollande's approach in a newspaper interview.

On Wednesday, Levy said European governments and the United States should join Arab states and Turkey in a fresh approach to the Syrian crisis, starting with the threat of a no-fly-zone.

"We need (British Prime Minister David) Cameron and Hollande to overturn this wariness and cowardice and prevent an impending massacre. What is looming in Aleppo will be a disgrace which, if we do nothing, will be on our consciences for a long time," he told Reuters.

Fighting is raging in the city of Aleppo between troops loyal to Assad and opposition rebels who have seized chunks of territory there 17 months into the conflict.

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Hollande, on a two-week vacation in the south of France, has made a point of limiting his intervention in foreign affairs.

While Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has had frequent contact with Syrian opposition leaders, Hollande has only met Sieda briefly during a Friends of Syria meeting in Paris.

Sarkozy's conservative UMP party also chimed in on Syria.

"Why is Francois Hollande... doing less than Sarkozy? Why has he decided not to intervene? Because of fear? Because of amateurism? Because he doesn't know how to decide?" UMP official Philippe Juvin said in a statement.

France, which holds the rotating chair of the U.N. Security Council for August, is to chair a ministerial meeting of Council members on August 30 focusing mainly on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as a stalemate persists over action to stop the violence.

Western powers have urged Assad to step down, but Russia and China have vetoed Security Council resolutions that would have condemned his government and opened the way to U.N. sanctions.

In contrast with Libyan conflict, Western powers are wary of intervention in Syria due to Assad's alliances with Russia and Iran, and Syria's position at the heart of sectarian divisions that radiate across the Middle East.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer in Paris and Louis Charbonneau in New York)

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