Hollande, Abdullah discuss Middle East

SAME PAGE::The French leader and the Saudi king said they were in sync on key regional issues such as the war in Syria, a nuclear Iran and unrest in Egypt and Lebanon

AFP, RIYADH

Tue, Dec 31, 2013 - Page 6

French President Francois Hollande and Saudi King Abdullah on Sunday held talks on escalating tensions in the Middle East during a visit also aimed at boosting commercial ties.

The monarch stressed a “convergence” of positions between the two countries on several issues, a member of Hollande’s entourage said.

At the meeting, Abdullah “expressed his concern, even anxiety, about regional crises — Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt — and praised France’s courageous position on these key dossiers,” the aide said.

Lebanon was at the top of the agenda amid heightening tensions in Beirut after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri’s close aide ex-minister Mohammad Chatah in a car bomb on Friday.

At the king’s luxurious Rawdat Khurayim farm, 60km northeast of Riyadh, both leaders expressed concern over Iranian interference in Lebanon and the region.

Paris and Riyadh share a “will to work for peace, security and stability in the Middle East,” Hollande said in an interview in Saudi-owned daily al-Hayat on Sunday.

Hollande later met with al-Hariri, a strong critic of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which is aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war.

Al-Hariri, whose father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafic al-Hariri, was assassinated in a massive car bomb in 2005, lives outside Lebanon due to security fears.

In a statement, Saad al-Hariri stressed “the importance of French support of the Lebanese state ... in particular the Lebanese army.”

Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, Hollande pledged to “meet” any requests by the Lebanese government to arm their forces.

His comments came as Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said from Beirut that Saudi Arabia pledged US$3 billion to the Lebanese army to buy French equipment.

Lebanon’s armed forces are woefully underequipped and face multiplying security challenges, underlined by the blast that killed Chatah, although officials played down any link with the Saudi aid pledge.

Hollande, who is accompanied on his two-day trip by four ministers and 30 French business leaders, also met with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba, president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

He urged the Syrian opposition to take part in a peace conference in Geneva next month aimed at brokering an end to the country’s civil war, an aide said.

Jarba said “100 a day, mostly civilians, including many women and children” were being killed in bombings by al-Assad’s forces.

The US-Russian backed talks — dubbed Geneva 2 — are aimed at reaching an agreement on a transition to end a war that has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives since March 2011 and displaced millions.

Hollande said he and King Abdullah were on the same page in terms of finding a “definitive solution” to Iran’s nuclear drive, as well as on the crisis in Syria.

In his interview with al-Hayat, Hollande accused al-Assad of using the threat of fundamentalist fighters “to put pressure on the moderate opposition.”

Hollande also said in the interview that Saudi Arabia has become France’s “top client in the Middle East” with trade exceeding 8 billion euros (US$11 billion) this year.