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Syrian president invited to Bastille Day in France

Latest update : 2008-06-13

France announced it has invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the official Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Elysées, a new sign of warming relations between the two countries.

France said Thursday it has invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend its national day military parade on the Champs Elysees after a Paris summit next month, in a major new sign of warming ties.

Assad is among 50 heads of state and government invited to the July 13 summit on the launch of a new Mediterranean Union, championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy as France takes over the European Union presidency.

"Of course all of these heads of state have been invited to stay for the July 14 ceremonies", which include a military parade on the Champs Elysees with UN chief Ban Ki-Moon as this year's guest of honour, said an official at the  French presidency.

Syria was for almost three decades the powerbroker in Lebanon, a longtime focal point of French interest in the Middle East.

France and the United States have accused Syria, through its supporters in the Lebanese opposition, of meddling in Beirut's political life, a charge denied by Damascus.

But Paris has moved to relaunch contacts with Damascus since the election of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman last month, which put an end to months of sectarian strife in the country.

Visiting Beirut last week, Sarkozy said a "new page may be opening in relations between France and Syria."

Syria's culture minister, Riad Naassan Agha, was in Paris Tuesday on the first visit by a Syrian government member in three years, and Sarkozy has said that Assad would "probably" come to the Paris summit.

Experts say Sarkozy is hoping Assad's presence will boost the launch of the Mediterranean Union project, which has received a lukewarm welcome from some European and Arab states.

But French opposition leaders have spoken out against inviting him to the July 14 parades, with the Socialist Party warning it would be "unwise".

"The Syrian question raises real concerns in Lebanon, particularly the prospect of seeing the Syrian head of state taking a front-seat place" at both the summit and the July 14 celebrations, said centrist leader Francois Bayrou, urging the government to "think very carefully".

Sarkozy's move to resume ties also drew a cautious reaction from Washington. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday she hoped Paris would send the right message to Damascus.

Speaking while heading to Paris for an Afghan donor conference, Rice said she assumed France would encourage Syria to take advantage of the indirect peace talks with Israel brokered by Turkey, and live up to its obligations not to interfere in Lebanese affairs.

Paris broke off contacts with Damascus in 2004 under President Jacques Chirac.

Relations were further harmed by suspicions of Syrian involvement in the February 2005 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was a personal friend of Chirac.

Sarkozy moved to resume relations after taking power in May last year. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met in November with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem, the first contacts since 2004.

Paris suspended top-level ties again in December as the crisis between pro- and anti-Syrian political camps in Lebanon worsened, degenerating into violence that killed 65 people last month.

The two sides finally reached agreement on May 21 in Doha, leading to the election of then army chief Sleiman after a six-month power vacuum.

Sarkozy called Assad immediately afterwards, saying France's conditions for renewed dialogue -- "positive, concrete developments" towards ending the Lebanese crisis -- had been met.

Date created : 2008-06-12