Page last updated at 16:52 GMT, Tuesday, 1 July 2008 17:52 UK

Sarkozy to meet Syrian president

President Bashar al-Assad
Mr Assad resisted the idea of direct talks with Israeli leaders in Paris

France has announced President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet Syria's President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a summit to launch a new Mediterranean union.

Relations have improved since a deal in May to end the long-running political crisis in Lebanon, where the two sides backed the rival parties.

France's foreign minister says Mr Assad and Israel's president will sit at the same table at the union's inauguration.

Long-term foes Israel and Syria are currently holding indirect peace talks.

An Israeli official said negotiators from each side would meet separately with mediators in Turkey on Tuesday for a third round of talks.

A French presidential aide said the one-to-one meeting in Paris would take place a day before the 13 July summit "because the two countries have things to say to each other and things to build".

"The Syrian president is not a perfect example in terms of respect for human rights, but he is making efforts," the aide said quoted by AFP as saying.

Former French President Jacques Chirac has said he will stay away from France's 14 July celebrations which Mr Assad will be attending.

France is a former colonial power in both Syria and Lebanon. Paris has strongly backed Lebanon's anti-Syrian movement, whose figurehead Rafik Hariri - a close friend of Mr Chirac - was assassinated in 2005.

Although Mr Assad and Israel's largely ceremonial head of state, Shimon Peres, will sit at the same table in Paris, Mr Assad has rejected a meeting with the Israeli political leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel and Syria are primarily at odds over the issue of the Golan Heights, part of south-east Syria which Israel captured in 1967 and has occupied since then.

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