Hollande to meet Syria, Lebanon opposition chiefs in Saudi

Agence France-Presse
French President Francois Hollande will meet former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarb amid heightening tensions in Lebanon after the assassination of Hariri's close aide, ex-minister Mohammad Chatah

MEETING. French President Francois Hollande will meet former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarb. Photo by AFP/SANA handout

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (UPDATED) – French President Francois Hollande arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, December 29 for a visit aimed at boosting prospects of commercial cooperation between the countries and addressing escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Hollande will hold talks with Saudi King Abdullah, but will also meet former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba in the kingdom, said a member of his entourage.

Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz met Hollande upon his arrival in the capital Riyadh. The French leader is scheduled to meet the king at his Rawdat Khurayim farm, 60 kilometres (37 miles) northeast of the capital.

Four ministers and 30 top figures in French business have accompanied Hollande on the visit.

France and Saudi Arabia share the “will to work for peace, security and stability in the Middle East,” Hollande said in an interview published in the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat published on Sunday.

Hollande’s meeting with Hariri, a staunch critic of the Syrian regime, comes amid heightened tensions in Lebanon after the assassination of his close aide, ex-minister Mohammad Chatah, in a car bomb on Friday in Beirut.

Hariri, the son of former premier Rafiq who was also killed in a massive car bomb in February 2005, lives outside Lebanon due to security concerns.

The Sunni Muslim leader is also a strong critic of the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war.

In his interview with Al-Hayat, Hollande called for the respect of “constitutional deadlines” in Lebanon, starting with “holding presidential elections in May 2014”.

Moderate opposition

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Hollande would deliver a “special message” to Hariri reiterating that France is “a friend of the Lebanese and Lebanon, (and) calls for the integrity and independence,” of the country.

France “rejects the contagion that some want to impose between the conflict in Syria and Lebanon,” he said on the presidential plane.

As for Syria, Hollande will tell Jarba that the participation of the opposition in the proposed peace conference in Switzerland on January 22 is “desirable”, according to Fabius.

The US-Russian backed Geneva talks are aimed at reaching an agreement on a transition to end the war, which has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives since March 2011 and displaced millions.

Syria’s increasingly fractured opposition has said Assad must step down as part of any deal, which Damascus rejects.

France intends to support the “moderate opposition and in no way the terrorist movements that are paradoxically serving the interests of Bashar” al-Assad, said Fabius.

In the interview with Al-Hayat, Hollande reiterated that there cannot be a “political solution with Bashar al-Assad staying” in power.

He accused Assad of using the threat of fundamentalist fighters “to put pressure on the moderate opposition,” insisting the embattled president is not fighting extremists.

Assad said this week that his country was being confronted by a major offensive by Islamist extremists.

Radical Islamist groups have taken on an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian conflict.

On the commercial front, Hollande said in his interview that Saudi Arabia has become France’s “top client in the Middle East” with trade exchange exceeding eight billion euros ($11 billion) in 2013, including French exports worth 3 billion euros.

The balance remains in Saudi Arabia’s favor on the back of its oil exports to France.

He noted “good results” that marked commercial relations between the two countries in 2013, citing contracts won by French companies in the oil-rich kingdom, including French Alstom winning Riyadh metro contract. – Rappler.com

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