Mitchell visits Beirut, Damascus to reiterate U.S. keenness to achieve peace

U.S. won’t agree to naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon, says Mitchell

Mideast envoy says U.S. wishes to see tangible progress on peace efforts, relations with Syria

Hariri holds important talks with French leaders in Paris on bilateral ties, regional developments

UN envoy to Lebanon urges Israel to withdraw from Ghajar village

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said Wednesday that Syria and Lebanon were key to achieving peace in the Middle East.

Mitchell was in Beirut on Tuesday and Wednesday and traveled to neighboring Damascus at the start of a regional tour aimed at restarting Middle East peace talks.

The visit is part of a U.S. effort to end Israel's conflicts with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon and, more broadly, normalize Israel's ties with the rest of the Arab world.

"Syria, certainly has an important role to play in all these efforts, as do the U.S. and international community," Mitchell added in a brief statement to reporters after a meeting with President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

Mitchell's visit to Syria is the third since he was appointed as U.S. Mideast peace envoy. Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

But relations have eased under President Barack Obama.

Earlier in Beirut, Mitchell said Lebanon is key to regional peace.

In a statement, he said Lebanon would play a key role in efforts to build lasting and comprehensive peace and stability in the Middle East.

Mitchell is also traveling to Israel and the Palestinian territories in his latest diplomatic mission to the region. The former senator is trying to persuade both sides to resume talks aimed at ending their decades-old conflict.

Previous talks broke off in December 2008.

The Palestinians have refused to resume negotiations until Israel halts all its settlement construction in lands captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war.

U.S. officials paid frequent visits to Lebanon in the past two weeks, discussing regional issues with Lebanese leaders, and showing U.S. commitment to Lebanon's independence and sovereignty.

Among the visitors are Middle East envoy George Mitchell, National Security Advisor James Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David Johnson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Hale, former presidential candidate, Republican senator John McCain and Senator Alcee Hastings, etc.

Mitchell visited Lebanon on Tuesday and Wednesday, as a part of his Mideast trip that also includes Syria, Israel and Palestinian territories.

Mitchell met with major Lebanese leaders, including President Michel Suleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Minister Ali El-Chami.

Mitchell conveyed to Lebanese leaders the commitment of President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which includes peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon and the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states.

He reiterated that there would not be a lasting solution reached at Lebanon's expense.

Mitchell also confirmed that the U.S. will not support the forced naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon. Mitchell's visit came after U.S. National Security Advisor Jim Jones' Beirut trip last week. During his meeting with top Lebanese leaders, Jones expressed support for strengthening Lebanon's state institutions, particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Jones reiterated the Obama's commitment to strengthening the partnership between the United States and Lebanon across a broad range of issues.

Like Mitchell, Jones also stressed U.S. efforts to achieve a comprehensive regional peace that will not come at Lebanon's expense.

Jones also discussed with Lebanese Army Commander General Jean Qahwaji about U.S. aids to the Lebanese Army and means of activating military cooperation.

When meeting with Jones, Hariri requested the United States to pressure Israel for achieving regional peace, and asked the United States to back the Lebanese army to enable proper implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and to face any regional threats.

During his visit in Beirut on January 11, David Johnson discussed with Lebanon's Interior Security Forces (ISF) chief Achraf Rifi about U.S. assistance to ISF.

The U.S. embassy in Lebanon issued a statement saying that the assistance will help to support the full sovereignty of a Lebanese government representing all of its people, and ISF capable of protecting Lebanon's citizens and the rule of law.

McCain, who is accompanied by a delegation from the U.S. congress, visited Lebanon on January 8 and discussed regional issues with Lebanese leaders.

Suleiman called on the international community, topped by the United States, to pressure the Israeli side regarding the implementation of Resolution 1701 and the halting of all kinds of violations against Lebanese sovereignty.

While Lebanese and U.S. officials discussed how to improve their ties, the two sides also discussed the problems in bilateral issues. When meeting with Senator McCain and Hastings, Suleiman urged Washington to unlist Lebanese citizens from its latest tightened airport security check, following the failed attempt to bomb a U.S. flight on Christmas Day last year by a Nigerian.

Washington decided earlier this month to require tighter security for passengers traveling from or through nations listed as "state sponsors of terrorism," including Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

Suleiman told Hastings that Lebanon is one of the most successful nations in fighting terrorism.

Suleiman also urged U.S. officials to reconsider the bill adopted by the U.S. congress on sanctioning Arab satellite channels that are deemed as "inciting hatred" against the United States, among them the Lebanese TV network Al Manar.

In 1999, Lebanese powerful Shiite armed group Hezbollah was placed on the U.S. State Department terrorism list.

U.S. officials' frequent visits raised different reactions.

Diplomatic sources told daily al-Mustaqbal that Mitchell's visit to Lebanon, as a point of start for his regional tour, has its own meaning.

The sources added to the newspaper close to PM Hariri that U.S. officials want to confirm that peace efforts in the region will not be on Lebanon's expense.

However, the local As Safir newspaper said on Wednesday that Mitchell's visit offers no new initiative, except what he said about the peace process in the region being boosted at the start of this year.

"U.S. officials' visits, especially James Jones visit, put Lebanon on the American security map, at a time when Lebanese are trying to avoid everything related to security," said the newspaper earlier last week.

Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said on Monday that the recent visits made by U.S. officials "do not serve the country's interests".

"The visits made by U.S. officials aim at showing that the U.S. still plays an influential role in the country," Fadlallah said.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri headed to France Wednesday on his first official visit to a Western nation since taking office, with the Mideast peace process and bilateral ties topping the agenda.

Hariri's office said the premier met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and a number of other officials during his three-day visit.

He also gathered with French business leaders and signed a number of bilateral accords in the judicial, security, research, financial and cultural sectors.

Hariri's visit is his first time in the West since taking office in November after protracted talks to form a new unity government between his US- and Saudi-backed majority and a Hezbollah-led coalition supported by Syria and Iran.

Hariri's visit also comes after his landmark trip last month to former arch-foe Syria, which he had accused in the past of being involved in the 2005 assassination of his father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

"There is a symbolic dimension to this visit to France which is a renewal of French support to Lebanon following the (June) election, the formation of a new government and the fact that the country is enjoying a period of stability which is conducive to reforms," France's ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton told reporters.

France and other donor countries have been pushing Lebanon to adopt much-needed reforms in a number of sectors, most notably the power and telecoms sectors.

Lebanon's electricity sector is the government's third highest expenditure item, while the telecommunications sector is monopolized by the state.

Last month, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde announced a one-year extension on a 225 million euro (323 million dollar) loan to Lebanon agreed in January 2007, pending economic reforms.

Pietton said Paris had no plan in the immediate future to renegotiate the conditions of the loan given the Lebanese government's commitment to implement reforms.

"The government manifesto is very clear on the will to reform and it is up to the Lebanese government to present its proposals to us," he said.

The "Paris III" conference, held after Israel's devastating war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, helped raise 7.6 billion dollars (5.3 billion euros) in financial assistance from international donors.

France agreed to a two-tranche 500 million euro loan, conditional on Beirut implementing economic reform.

Meanwhile, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams told Lebanese Foreign Minister Ali al-Shami on Tuesday that the United Nations is seeking to guarantee a quick Israeli pullout from al-Ghajar village, the country's state-run National News Agency (NNA) reported.

NNA quoted Williams as saying that "we intend to redouble our efforts to try and seek Israeli withdrawal as quickly as possible from al-Ghajar."

The pullout "is now more than three years overdue," he added after a meeting with al-Shami in Beirut.

Al-Ghajar was considered part of Syria before the six-day war in 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights, bordering Lebanon, from Syria.

Over the years, the village expanded northward into Lebanese territory. In 2000 when UN drew the Blue Line, the northern half of the village came under Lebanese control and the southern part remained in Israel. Israeli troops returned to the northern half of al-Ghajar in the 2006 war against Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah.

Williams stressed that the Israeli pullout from the village would lead to "far greater progress" on all other issues within UN Security Council Resolution 1701, including violations of Lebanese airspace.

"The United Nations continues to call on Israel to halt" violations of Resolution 1701 "in the strongest terms," he said.

Lebanon accuses Israel of intruding its airspace on a daily basis, saying it is a violation of Resolution 1701. The resolution put an end to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and mandates peacekeepers to monitor the armistice along the border.