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Latest update : 2008-09-04

French President Sarkozy and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad held a press conference in Damascus to seal their reconciliation. Relations had deteriorated under President Chirac after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

Read Jean-Bernard Cadier's commentary about Nicolas Sarkozy's goals for the summit.

DAMASCUS, Sept 3 (Reuters) - French President Nicolas
Sarkozy met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday on a
visit that should help efforts by Damascus to rejoin the
international fold.

Sarkozy, the first Western head of government to visit Syria
since the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik
al-Hariri, will however be looking for Syrian cooperation in
resolving the situation in Lebanon.

France has taken a lead in re-engagement with Syria after
Assad embarked on indirect peace talks with Israel and adopted
what was seen as a more conciliatory stance towards Lebanon.

"Anything concrete on Lebanon will be a triumph for Sarkozy.
He needs something to justify to more sceptical Europeans that
engagement with Syria works," a diplomat in Damascus told

"Otherwise the trip will give more prestige to Assad without
anything serious in return."

Sarkozy was greeted with an official welcome at a palace on
a hilltop overlooking the Syrian capital.

French officials say Paris still backs an international
tribunal to try suspects in Hariri's assassination. A U.N.
investigation has implicated Syrian officials in the killing.

Sarkozy is expected to urge Assad to move swiftly to
implement a decision to open embassies with Beirut and start
border demarcation.

Paris had accused Syria of contributing to the crisis in
Lebanon that turned violent in May before a Qatari-brokered deal
resulted in the formation of a national unity government in
which the Hezbollah led-opposition has veto power.


Syria, a former military power in Lebanon, was seen as
helping to reach the deal.

Relations between France -- which ruled Syria between 1918
and 1946 -- and the Damascus government have improved since
then. Assad visited France in July and pledged to open
diplomatic relations with Beirut.

Sarkozy urged Assad then to free political prisoners who had
campaigned for a democratic constitution and freedom of
expression. Human Rights Watch said the French leader's visit
comes at a time of increased repression against dissidents.

Paris has promised Assad economic incentives in return for
political progress. It also wants Syria to break its alliance
with Iran but Assad has shown no sign he is willing to do so.

Syrian officials say Syria has been negotiating a
preliminary deal to buy Airbus jets despite U.S. sanctions on
the Damascus government.

French oil major Total is also in talks to expand an oil
licence in Syria. Total's Chief Executive Office Christophe de
Margerie is accompanying Sarkozy.

Assad and Sarkozy will join Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani on
Thursday for talks on Lebanon and Syria's talks with Israel.

Date created : 2008-09-03