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Page last updated at 14:03 GMT, Saturday, 7 June 2008 15:03 UK

Sarkozy presses Lebanon on peace

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) is greeted by his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman
Mr Sarkozy is the first Western leader to meet President Michel Suleiman

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has urged political leaders in Lebanon to fully implement a peace deal which ended months of internal confrontation.

He made his appeal on a visit to the country - the first there by a Western leader since the deal was made in May.

A spokesman for the Elysee Palace said the purpose was to show support for the new president, General Michel Suleiman.

The army chief was elected after months of political division which erupted into bloody clashes.

Message of friendship

Mr Sarkozy said Gen Suleiman's election was a "synonym for hope" for all Lebanese and called on leaders to follow through on commitments made in Qatar and agree on the formation of a national unity government.

He also pledged support to the Lebanese government and armed forces.

"Mr President, dear Michel, you know you can count on the engagement of France - political engagement and economic engagement," Mr Sarkozy said.

In interviews, Mr Sarkozy also raised the possibility of better relations with Syria. France was among countries which blamed Syria for the wrangling which had blocked a deal in Lebanon.

A source close to his office said President Sarkozy plans to send two senior envoys to Syria, if the situation in Lebanon continues to improve.

Earlier, Mr Sarkozy cancelled a planned visit to French troops serving in the UN peacekeeping force in the south.

French officials said he wanted to maintain the "political character" of the visit.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin visited the troops instead.

Opening dialogue

The BBC's Mike Sergeant in Beirut says that although it is 65 years since France controlled Lebanon directly, the French left a strong cultural legacy and it is no surprise that Mr Sarkozy wanted to be the first Western leader to hold talks with Gen Suleiman.

He also met representatives of all 14 Lebanese political parties.

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Nicolas Sarkozy is welcomed to Lebanon

He was accompanied by Prime Minister Francois Fillon, as well as his defence and foreign ministers - but also more unusually by the leaders of his country's main opposition parties.

A spokesman said the aim was to send a strong message of friendship and hope to a country which in France's view had only narrowly escaped catastrophe.

Tensions in Lebanon between the opposition led by Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, and the pro-Western government erupted into violence last month, leaving more than 65 people dead.

But the rival factions later pulled the situation back from the brink to reach a new power-sharing agreement leading to a national unity government after talks in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Under Mr Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac - a close friend of assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - French policy towards Lebanon was clearly aligned with the anti-Syrian government.

This continued under Mr Sarkozy with the suspension of high-level diplomatic contacts with Damascus for four months earlier this year.

But the aim now seems to be to open a dialogue with all the main parties.



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