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France ends contact with Syria over Lebanese presidential election

France is cutting off talks with Syria until Damascus shows its willingness to let Lebanon elect a new president, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
Lebanon's Western-backed government and pro-Syrian opposition have been unable to break a deadlock over filling the presidential post, empty for a month, and many Western countries have accused Damascus of interfering in the process _ a claim Syria denies.
"I will not have any more contact with the Syrians until ... we have received proof of Syria's intention to let Lebanon designate a president of consensus," said Sarkozy at a press conference Sunday in Cairo after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, has led the international effort to mediate between feuding Lebanese politicians and has consistently implored the Syrians to cooperate.
Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal called Sarkozy's comments "surprising," telling Syrian state television that Damascus was "working with France to reach an agreement on a president who represents all Lebanese."
The French president spoke with Syrian President Bashar Assad as recently as the beginning of December to urge him to "facilitate" the election in Lebanon.
Sarkozy sent his chief of staff, Claude Gueant, to Damascus in early November, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem earlier that month on the sidelines of an Iraq conference in Turkey.
"France has taken the responsibility of talking with Syria," said Sarkozy. "One must recognize today that we cannot wait any longer, Syria must stop talking and now must act."
Syria has denied meddling with the election and has accused the French of working too closely with the U.S., which Damascus claims is trying to manipulate the Lebanese political process for its own interests _ an accusation Washington denies.
Sarkozy also called on Israel to halt construction in Jewish settlements as a gesture to push forward peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
"I have said on several occasions ... that it is the moment for the Israelis to make some gestures that would show that peace is possible _ including a freeze on the implantation of colonies," Sarkozy said.
Sarkozy met Mubarak in the last days of a personal vacation the French president has taken in Egypt the past week. Later Sunday, Sarkozy toured the pyramids with his girlfriend, supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni.
Lebanon has been without a president since Nov. 23, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down without a successor. Opposition boycotts have thwarted attempts to choose a president by preventing a two-thirds quorum in parliament.
Lawmakers on both sides have agreed to back Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as a compromise candidate, but parliament must first amend the constitution to allow a sitting military chief to become president.
That process has been complicated by the opposition's demand for a new unity government that would give it veto power over major decisions.
The ruling coalition has accused the opposition of obstructing the presidential vote under orders from Syria and Iran. In turn, the opposition claims pro-government groups bend to the will of the U.S.
Mubarak also called on Syria to push Lebanese politicians to follow through with the election, saying it was "illogical" for the country to go without a president for so long.
"I ask Syria, with its influence, to intervene so that the parliament meets and elects a president," said Mubarak at the press conference. "I call on Syria to do so because it has more influence on the conflicting parties than the others."
Syria effectively controlled Lebanon for almost three decades but was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Associated Press Writer Pauline Freour contributed to this report from Paris.

Updated : 2021-06-21 18:28 GMT+08:00