Lebanon, Syria try for better relations


MIDDLE EAST: Lebanese prime minister Fuad Siniora and Syrian president Bashar Assad have called for relations between their two countries to be rebuilt. Both sides pledged yesterday to "deepen co-operation" and to avoid anything that could disrupt their "special relationship".

Relations between Beirut and Damascus chilled rapidly after Syria was believed to have been implicated in the assassination last February of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Syria denied involvement but domestic and international pressure forced Damascus to end its 29- year military presence in Lebanon.

A deep freeze set in when anti-Syrian politicians won a majority of seats in Lebanon's 128-member parliament in the election following Syria's withdrawal.

After fresh accusations were levelled at Syria following the murders of Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir and former communist chief George Hawi, Damascus charged Lebanese militants with the killing of 32 Syrian workers and the disappearance of 795 Syrians residing in Lebanon.

Syria also demanded compensation for 300,000 of its workers who fled Lebanon following the murder of Mr Hariri.

Damascus recently imposed heavy security measures on its border with Lebanon, in response to charges that it was not taking strong action against terrorists.

However, intense searches slowed the flow of lorries carrying Lebanese goods and agricultural produce to the Arab hinterland to a trickle. Hundreds of vehicles have been trapped on the Lebanese side of the border and in no-man's land between the frontier posts of the two countries, causing fruit and vegetables to rot and costing Lebanese exporters $300,000 a day in lost sales.

Lebanon claimed the measures were politically motivated.

At a news conference with Syrian prime minister Mohammad Naji Otri, Mr Siniora said the issue of delays on the border had been resolved.

Mr Siniora has pledged to reform Lebanon's political and economic system but cannot begin until he ends the crisis between his country and its much larger neighbour. He has expressed his determination to re-establish "healthy, privileged and solid relations" with Syria based on "new thinking" and "mutual interest and respect".

This was his first trip outside Lebanon since he took office and followed Saturday's overwhelming vote of confidence in his cabinet, giving him a strong hand in negotiations with Dr Assad and Mr Otri.