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Lebanese premier holds talks in Syria
Updated: 2005-08-01 09:45

Syria and Lebanon pledged Sunday to repair the damage to their relations caused by Syria's forced military withdrawal, but they gave little indication of how they would accomplish their goal, Associated Press reported.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the first visit to Damascus by a senior Lebanese official since Syria pulled its troops from Lebanon in April, ending 29 years of military dominance.

At a press conference with Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otari, Saniora said both countries would adopt measures aimed at "bolstering the relationship between the two countries based on equality."

But, in a sign of changing times, Saniora said the two sides had agreed to re-evaluate past agreements owing to "changes that sometimes require a reconsideration."

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora arrives at Dimas Suburb near the Syrian-Lebanese border on Sunday, July 31, 2005.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora arrives at Dimas Suburb near the Syrian-Lebanese border on Sunday, July 31, 2005. [AP]
Otari said bilateral agreements would be re-evaluated in accordance with the national interests of each country.

Saniora said Syria has promised to clear the backlog of hundreds of Lebanese freight trucks that have been stranded for weeks at Syrian border crossings. Many Lebanese have accused Syria of delaying the vehicles as punishment for its humiliating military withdrawal, but Syria has insisted the measures were applied to catch saboteurs and militants.

Otari promised a solution "in the very near future."

Tension between the two countries has been high since Syria was forced to pull its troops from Lebanon after mass protests and U.S.-led international pressure in the wake of the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Saniora's visit follows the election of a parliamentary majority in Lebanon that is opposed to Syrian dominance of the country — the first vote free of Syrian influence in nearly three decades.

"This is a 'last chance' trip," Saniora told Lebanon's leading newspaper An-Nahar shortly before he left for the Syrian capital on Sunday. "The continuation of the present state affairs spells out destruction for the two countries. It must not continue."

Syria's official media Sunday gave conflicting signals about Saniora's visit.

Pro-government daily Tishrin newspaper said in a front-page headline, "Syria receives Saniora with an open heart and stretched hands, and is ready to do all it can for brotherly Lebanon to preserve its security, stability and national unity." But Al-Baath, the mouthpiece of Syria's ruling Baath Party, demanded a committee be formed to determine the fate of an estimated 795 Syrians it claims were kidnapped in Lebanon during the 1975-90 civil war.

Saniora said the issue will be "discussed later through joint committees."

Saniora said his talks in the Syrian capital had been "excellent, marked by complete honesty and a genuine wish" to push forward bilateral relations based on mutual interests.

A joint statement issued afterward said Syria was eager to "establish the best relations with Lebanon ... in the framework of the independence and sovereignty of each country."

But the statement offered no concrete proposals.

Many Lebanese accused Syria of playing a role in the fatal bombing that killed Hariri. Syria denied any involvement, but the killing triggered anti-Syrian protests in Beirut and intensified domestic and international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops.

Syrian soldiers entered Lebanon, ostensibly as peacekeepers, in 1976 in the second year of the civil war. They remained in Lebanon after the war, with the pro-Syrian Lebanese government arguing that their presence was essential for stability.

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