French envoy wraps up Beirut visit, no breakthrough

Top French diplomat Jean-Claude Cousseran wrapped up a three-day mission to Lebanon Wednesday without making much headway in breaking an eight-month deadlock among the country’s feuding political parties.The French envoy told reporters that his meetings with Lebanese leaders were useful and aimed at paving the way for a visit here this weekend by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. He did not elaborate.

But several sources told AFP that Cousseran’s efforts were hampered by the refusal of the powerful Shiite Hizbollah party, which leads the opposition, to agree to join discussions with rival parties in Lebanon.

“I believe Hizbollah does not want to move forward on a meeting in Beirut among the country’s political parties,” Youth Minister Ahmad Fatfat, who is a member of the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, told AFP.

France in recent weeks has pushed to settle Lebanon’s ongoing political crisis which is threatening to scuttle presidential  elections  set  for  September,  thus  plunging  the country further into chaos.

Cousseran since arriving Monday has met with officials from across the political spectrum, including representatives from Hizbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

On Wednesday, he met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a member of the opposition, and said the two had discussed Cousseran’s recent visit to Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“We had a lengthy and useful conversation that touched on the recent conference in Saint Cloud,” Cousseran told reporters, referring to talks near Paris earlier this month that gathered representatives from the rival camps.

“We also discussed my meetings in neighbouring countries and with a number of Lebanese officials,” he added.

A member of the anti-Syrian majority in parliament told AFP that it was suggested to Cousseran that a second meeting such as the one held at Saint Cloud take place in Beirut but Hizbollah refused.

Hizbollah is insisting that such a meeting take place only when a government of national unity is formed, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Syria was the main powerbroker in Lebanon until it was forced to end 29 years of military domination after it was blamed for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri. Syria has denied any involvement in the murder.

Since then, Lebanon has been deeply divided between anti- and pro-Syrian factions.

It has been completely deadlocked since November when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the Cabinet charging that it was riding roughshod over the power-sharing arrangements in force since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Fears are running high that the tensions could spill over into violence ahead of the disputed election by parliament in late September of a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

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