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Britain says open to talks with Lebanon's Hezbollah

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government is open to talks with the political wing of Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a minister said on Wednesday.

A woman holds up a poster with Lebanon's Hezbollah logo during an anti-Israel rally in Tehran University February 2, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

“We have reconsidered the position ... in light of more positive developments within Lebanon,” Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell told a parliamentary committee. “For that reason we have explored establishing contacts.”

He said he was referring to the formation in July last year of a unity government in which Hezbollah and its allies hold effective veto power, as agreed under a deal that ended a paralyzing political conflict in the country.

“We will look to have further discussions and our overriding objective within that is to press Hezbollah to play a more constructive role, particularly to move away from violence,” Rammell said.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the British government was exploring contacts only with Hezbollah’s political wing.

Britain said last July it was adding the military arm of Hezbollah to its list of banned organizations.

Hezbollah comprises guerrilla fighters, members of parliament, social, medical and reconstruction. It is highly centralized and all members undergo military training.

Previous British policy since 2005 had been to shun contact with either arm of the movement, the spokesman said.

Rammell said a delegation of British opposition Conservative legislators held talks recently with a Lebanese parliamentary committee that included one Hezbollah member.

The spokesman said the British ambassador to Lebanon was present at that meeting.

The move could also be significant because Britain, the United States and other powers are locked in a dispute with Iran, Hezbollah’s backers, over its nuclear program.

The powers accuse Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran says it only wants nuclear energy.

Lebanon is due to hold parliamentary polls in June which are expected to be a tight contest between anti-Syrian factions and a Hezbollah-led alliance.

Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Jon Boyle