The leaders of France, Russia and Germany met near Paris on Saturday for an informal meeting that covered a wide array of topics, including the Middle East crisis and energy issues.
Standing at attention: Putin, Chirac and Merkel on Saturday
Angela Merkel was a little late. Runnig 10 minutes behind schedule, the German chancellor forced President Vladmir Putin to re-enter his car and drive around a bit longer as protocol required the Russian head of state to arrive after Merkel at a former royal palace in the town of Compiegne, just north of Paris.
But the delay apparently didn't have any consequences for the meeting as the three leaders still covered a wide array of topics, beginning with the situation in the Middle East.
German navy soldiers left for Lebanon on Thursday
While France and Germany have already sent troops to the region to safeguard a ceasefire between Israel and the radical Hezbollah militia, Putin said Russia was sending "a small contingent" of military engineers and sappers to Lebanon to help rebuild the war-ravaged country's infrastructure.
He added that the contingent would not be part of the United Nations Interim Force in
Lebanon (UNIFIL). Instead, it would function "within a bilateral framework," Putin said.
French President Jacques Chirac meanwhile said that Hezbollah must be part of a democratic system if it wishes to become a viable political party.
"It is evident that Hezbollah has the vocation to be a political party," he said. "But to be a political party it must integrate itself indemocracy."
The French president also said that the problem of Lebanese sovereignty cannot be tackled by UNIFIL, but "must be resolved by the Lebanese themselves,that is, internally."
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Other issues included the crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear program, the situation in Kosovo, EU-Russian relations and several bi- and trilateral issues such as energy, aeronautics and space.
Merkel praised the informal trilateral summit, which has been held since 1998, and said it "contributed to the deepening of Russia's relationship to the entire European Union."
But trying to allay fears in eastern Europe that the meeting was the sign of a new Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, Merkel said that "it has to be clear that these meetings are not held in opposition to anyone."
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Putin on the other hand assured his counterparts that the recent purchase by a state-owned Russian bank of 5.02 per cent of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) was not the first step in Moscow's attempt to influence the aerospace giant.
The purchase was not "the sign of aggressive conduct by Russian parties," Putin said, but was merely "a natural game of markets. We bought because the share price was less expensive. We do not want to influence anything."
In addition, Putin said that he, Chirac and Merkel had agreed on the establishment of working groups of experts to explore closer cooperation among their countries in aircraft construction.