Tue, Aug 01, 2006 - Page 7 News List

France takes lead in Lebanon diplomacy

FILLING A VOID In the wake of the Israeli air raid on Qana and the top US envoy's cancelation of a trip to Beirut, Paris has sent a minister to the city

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE AND AP , PARIS

Children hold a candlelight vigil in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris on Sunday in memory of at least 56 people -- more than half of them children -- who were killed on Sunday in an Israeli airstrike that crushed a building in the Lebanese village of Qana. They were demonstrating to denounce Israel's attacks in Lebanon.

PHOTO: AP

With events in the Middle East moving too quickly for predictions, President Jacques Chirac of France has moved to lead the diplomatic campaign to end the crisis in Lebanon.

On Sunday, just hours after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled her trip to Lebanon, Chirac ordered his foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, to head there immediately.

"I am going to Beirut first of all to meet with Prime Minister [Fouad] Siniora and other personalities to find the conditions for both an immediate suspension of offensive operations and a political agreement that can last," Douste-Blazy said on Sunday in a telephone interview before his departure.

He added, "It appears to us essential to guarantee the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, and to stress that the state of Israel has an interest in defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon."

Douste-Blazy denied that he was going to Lebanon because Rice was not. But the French government is worried that Israel's deadly air raid on the southern Lebanese village of Qana has so weakened the government of Lebanon that it might not survive.

Chirac feels strongly that France, which served as administrator of Lebanon after World War I under an international mandate, must use its good offices to support the country.

"We need this government," one senior French official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic practices. "We need to keep this government by showing the international community cares. Condi today is not able to go to Beirut. Well, we are."

The US and France are deeply divided about how to move toward having an international military force in Lebanon.

The US, which has already ruled out sending its own troops to southern Lebanon, wants to create the force first and worry about a political agreement later. The French, who will certainly be a large contributor of troops, insist there must be a ceasefire and a comprehensive, viable political agreement before they will put one French soldier in harm's way.

Earlier in the day, Chirac, in a statement, called the attack on Qana "unjustifiable."

Douste-Blazy suggested that the US and Israel bore some responsibility for the tragedy, telling reporters that there should have been support for an immediate ceasefire.

"If people had listened to what the French have been saying for several days, this crisis would not have taken place," he said. "What distinguishes us from our American partners is that we have been demanding from the start an immediate cessation of hostilities, the only condition for there to be a negotiation, then a political accord and a sustainable ceasefire."

In the interview, he tried to soften his stance, praising Rice for her energetic diplomacy and insisting that the two countries are working well together to end the crisis.

But he also predicted that without an immediate ceasefire, "the drama of Qana can happen again."

In an interview published yesterday in the French daily Le Figaro, Douste-Blazy said, "Public opinion in the Middle East is becoming more radicalized ... if we do not have a discussion with all the parties as soon as possible, we run the risk of a conflict that would go beyond the region and which would pit the Muslim world against the West. It would be tragic."

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