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Europe

EU's Sarkozy Heads to Syria for Mideast Peace Talks

France holds the current EU presidency, but Sarkozy's visit to Syria to heal a rift between the two countries appears to be bilateral in nature. On Wednesday, Sarkozy joins Syria's al-Assad and others for peace talks.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad, left

Syria's al-Assad met with Sarkozy in Paris at the start of France's EU presidency in July

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "peace in the Middle East passes through France and Syria" and that his visit to Syria sent a friendship message to the Syrian people.

"Syria can present a significant help in solving issues in the Middle East," Sarkozy told the Syrian al-Watan daily newspaper Tuesday, on the eve of a high-profile visit to Damascus.

"It is important that Syria would play a positive role in the (Middle East) region," added the French president in the interview published Wednesday.

Sarkozy currently holds the six month presidency of the European Union, but the visit appeared to be bilateral in nature.

Sarkozy's visit aims at strengthening bilateral relations, which were frozen after the murder in February 2005 of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was a close friend of former French president Jacques Chirac.

Damascus was accused of being behind al-Hariri's murder, but Syria has denied the charge.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid a visit to Paris last July during the start of the French EU presidency and said his country was ready to have diplomatic relations with Lebanon.

In August, Lebanon and Syria agreed to establish diplomatic relations during a visit by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to Damascus.

"New chapter" in French-Syrian relations

Syrian and Israeli flags in foreground. Turkish flag in background

Turkey has mediated peace talks between Syria and Israel

"Our countries open a new chapter in their relations," Sarkozy said, describing the new chapter as "precious."

"Our friendship is a priceless fortune that should be preserved at any cost," he told the semi-official newspaper.

Sarkozy will join a four-way summit on Middle East peace on Thursday with al-Assad and regional mediators Turkey and Qatar.

Qatar brokered a deal last May to resolve Lebanon's political crisis, while Turkey has been mediating indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel since May.

"The indirect talks between Syria and Israel are an excellent thing for the two countries, the region and the entire world," Sarkozy was quoted as saying. "It's not easy to achieve peace because it requires a lot of effort and strong will. I would like to hail the courage of the Syrian and Israeli leaders, and hail Turkey's significant role."

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