France says Qatar must answer to neighbors in diplomatic row

PARIS (Reuters) - France on Wednesday appeared to caution Qatar in its diplomatic rift with some fellow Arab states by saying the Gulf nation needed to be transparent and answer the questions its neighbors had asked it.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on Monday cut ties with Qatar, which denounced the move as based on lies about it supporting Islamist militants.

“Qatar must be completely transparent and answer precisely the questions that have been asked notably by its neighbors. That’s what France is asking for,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner told reporters in a weekly briefing.

“It’s not about taking sides. We are a country that is friends with these states and with which our cooperation is historic and deep, so we call on all parties to reconnect and to achieve that the questions have to be answered.”

Castaner was responding to a question on whether Paris agreed with the accusation by the Saudi-led group that Qatar supported “terrorist” groups. Qatar vehemently denies this.

Speaking in Paris on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said Qatar must take several steps, including ending its support for the Palestinian group Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, to restore ties with other Arab states.

France nurtured close economic and military ties with Gulf Arab states and Egypt, which has included sales of fighter jets to both Cairo and Doha, under the previous Socialist government of then-President Francois Hollande.

It initially took almost a day to respond when Qatar crisis erupted on Monday and had wanted to position itself as being able to talk to all sides.

New President Emmanuel Macron, who said during his election campaign he would be attentive to accusations that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar financed Islamist militants, spoke to Qatari and Emirati leaders on Wednesday.

He said that it was important to preserve stability in the Gulf region but that Paris would be uncompromising in fighting terrorism.

“There are economic matters at stake for our companies in all these countries,” Castaner said. “It’s important for France to stay in the circle of partnership with all those countries.”

Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; writing by John Irish; editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Mark Heinrich