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Syria Halts Contacts With France on Lebanon

Syria says it is breaking off contacts with France on the political crisis in Lebanon, responding to a similar gesture by Paris. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syria is ending contacts with France on the political standoff in Lebanon.

The decision follows a similar move by France. On Sunday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters in Cairo he is suspending contact with Syria until he sees proof that Damascus is working for a solution to Lebanon's political crisis.

Syria's foreign minister said the West is sending mixed messages to Syria when it calls for no foreign interference in Lebanon.

Moallem says, on the other hand, Syria is being called on to use its its influence in Lebanon. He calls this a "confusing situation" and says Syria will not interfere in Lebanese affairs.

He accused Paris of blaming Syria for France's own failure to break the deadlock that has prevented the country's rival political blocs from reaching an agreement on a new president.

Moallem said Syria has been offered a number of incentives to exert pressure on the Lebanese opposition, including an economic deal with the European Union and a visit from the French president. He said Damascus has rejected what he called these "temptations," saying Syria is more interested in Lebanon's stability than in pursuing its own interests.

At a news conference in Cairo on Sunday, French President Sarkozy accused Syria of failing to follow up its words with action when it talks about ending the crisis in Lebanon.

President Bush has also accused Syria of interfering to block the election of a new Lebanese president.

Lebanon has been without a head of state since November 23. The two main political factions have agreed in principle on a successor, army chief Michel Suleiman, but the parliamentary vote to elect him has been repeatedly postponed as the two sides wrangle over the balance of power in the next cabinet.

Each side blames the other for the standoff. The majority bloc in parliament, known as the March 14 movement, is backed by Europe, the United States and many Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. The opposition, led by Hezbollah, gets support from Syria and Iran.

France has been especially active in pressing for a solution, and the French foreign minister has been personally involved in the negotiations. But France's allies in the March 14 coalition have complained that Paris's pressure on them to accept a deal has undermined their strength in the talks.