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Sarkozy meets Syria's Assad ahead of summit

PARIS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asked France on Saturday to assist in direct peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, alongside the United States.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) gestures during a news conference with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) at the Elysee Palace, July 12, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Ending years of isolation from the West, Assad held talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the eve of a major EU-Mediterranean summit and signalled his willingness for face-to-face talks with Israel.

In a joint Franco-Syrian statement following the meeting, Sarkozy also said he welcomed Assad’s determination to establish diplomatic relations with neighbouring Lebanon.

“The Syrian President has expressed his wish that France, together with the United States of America, fully contributes to a future peace agreement between Syria and Israel, both to the direct peace talks and to the implementation of the peace agreement,” the statement said.

Syria launched indirect peace talks with Israel this year under Turkish mediation over the return of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967.

The last talks direct between the Israel and Syria under U.S. sponsorship broke down eight years ago and Washington has been reluctant to re-engage with Damascus because of its role in Lebanon and close ties with Iran.

The statement added that Sarkozy would visit Syria by mid-September to relaunch relations between Paris and Damascus, which have been tense since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

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France believes the killing was orchestrated from Damascus, a charge that Assad has denied.

Assad met Lebanese President Michel Suleiman for the first time on Saturday as well as the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who helped broker a power-sharing deal among Lebanon’s pro-Western and pro-Syrian factions in May.

Suleiman told reporters on Saturday that relations with neighbouring Syria were good and that his country would like to open a diplomatic mission in Damascus.

“We too obviously want an exchange of ambassadors and diplomatic relations with Syria,” he said after meeting Sarkozy.

The establishment of embassies would amount to a Syrian recognition of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Syria has long been a dominant player in Lebanon’s political and military affairs but the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since Lebanon’s independence since 1943.

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France and many other Western nations have shunned Syria in recent years, turning it into a virtual pariah state, accusing Assad of destabilising neighbouring Lebanon and fuelling unrest across its borders with Iraq.

But following the deal that pulled Lebanon back from the brink of a new civil war, France decided to resume high level contacts with Syria and Sarkozy invited Assad to the EU-Mediterranean summit.

The high-profile gathering not only gives Assad the chance to hold his first meeting with Suleiman but, in a diplomatic first, take part in a summit that includes Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who flies into Paris on Sunday.

Sunday’s summit will draw more than 40 heads of state and government to Paris and is aimed at breathing new life into the existing Euro-Med partnership, creating a more equal dialogue between countries lining the Mediterranean.

-- Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Francois Murphy

Writing by Crispian Balmer and Paul Taylor; editing by Sami Aboudi