Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Saturday, 12 July 2008 00:06 UK

Syria, Lebanon to open embassies

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (C) welcomes his counterparts Basha Assad (L), Michel Suleiman (R) and Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani ( second R) to the Elysee Palace
This is the start of a weekend of diplomacy for Nicolas Sarkozy

Syria and Lebanon have agreed to open embassies in each other's capitals, French leader Nicolas Sarkozy has said.

The announcement came after Mr Sarkozy held talks with Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman and then Syria's leader Bashar Assad in Paris.

Lebanon and Syria broke off diplomatic ties after former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Beirut accused Syria of involvement.

Mr Assad's welcome in Paris marks his return to the world stage.

"I would like to say what a historic step forward it is for France that Syrian President Bashar Assad is determined to open a diplomatic representation in Lebanon, and that Lebanon should open a diplomatic representation in Syria," Mr Sarkozy announced after meeting both men.

Mr Sarkozy said the two leaders had authorised him to speak on their behalf.

Presidents Assad later confirmed the news. "Our position is that there is no problem for the opening of embassies between Syria and Lebanon," he told reporters.

Reward for Assad?

Relations between Damascus and Beirut have been tense since the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in mid-2005 after Mr Hariri's assassination.

But the two nations have not had diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level since they became independent in the 1940s.

Assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri
Rafik Hariri was killed in 2005 by a truck loaded with explosives

The US state department welcomed the announcement, but said Syria needed to take "concrete actions to end its destabilising tactics in the region".

Mr Sarkozy also discussed other issues with his counterparts from Syria and Lebanon, during talks in the Elysee Palace.

After his meeting with Mr Assad, the French president said he had asked Syria to help resolve the international dispute over Iran's nuclear programme.

Mr Assad said he was interested in finding a political solution, and he believed that Iran had no intention of trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

The Syrian leader also said he wanted France and the US to contribute to peace efforts between Syria and Israel, but Mr Sarkozy added that conditions were not yet right for direct Syria-Israel talks.

Mr Sarkozy added that he would visit Syria for talks before mid-September.

Mediterranean Union

The Paris visit is a big boost for Mr Assad, helping Syria to break out of its diplomatic isolation, says BBC world affairs correspondent Nick Childs.

But critics say Mr Assad's reception is too much of a reward, when there are still serious question marks over human rights in Syria and its alleged role in the killing of Mr Hariri.

The meetings with Syrian and Lebanese delegates marked the beginning of a weekend of intense diplomatic effort for the French president.

Earlier on Saturday, Mr Sarkozy held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who will be a key player in the French leader's plan for a union of Mediterranean states.

Mr Sarkozy is hosting a summit on Sunday to launch the union, which will be attended by 43 leaders of countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Only Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is expected to boycott it.

According to our correspondent, critics are dismissing the new union as lacking substance, but French officials say it comes at a significant moment.

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