German FM holds important talks on region with leaders of four Arab countries

French FM says President Assad of Syria denies any Scuds in Lebanon

Greece’s Papandreou stresses in Beirut need to work seriously towards solution to Palestinian issue

Assad urges West to understand state of change in region

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called in Damascus and Beirut on Sunday for an easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors, urging all sides to respect a 2006 ceasefire in Lebanon.

"We cannot be resigned to a constant state of tension, even if it is decreasing," Kouchner told journalists after a meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He renewed an appeal for all sides to respect UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended a devastating month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The resolution bans the delivery of arms to the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah.

In Damascus, Kouchner expressed France's concern over Hezbollah's weaponry, to which Assad gave assurances it was not in the interests of Damascus, Tehran or Hezbollah to trigger a new conflict, a French diplomatic source said.

The source, asking not to be named, said that France as a peace broker also wanted to encourage Syria to ease tensions in the region and not to facilitate the delivery of arms to Hezbollah.

Israeli President Shimon Peres sparked controversy last month when he accused Syria of supplying Hezbollah with Scud missiles, a charge Damascus has staunchly rejected.

In the meeting with Kouchner, Assad accused the West of overlooking Israeli violations in the region.

"The region has changed and the West's policy in the area is no longer acceptable, keeping silent over Israeli violations is no longer acceptable," Syria's official news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying.

"If the West wants security and stability to be established in the Middle East, they (Western countries) must start to play an effective role to contain Israel and put an end to its extremist policies," Assad said.

He also told Kouchner that countries pushing for UN sanctions against Iran should change their stance, because Tehran's nuclear program was aimed at civilian pursuits, SANA reported.

"The countries concerned should modify their approach concerning Iran's civilian nuclear program," he said. Assad said an accord signed in Tehran last week after three-way talks with the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, whereby Iran would swap its low-grade uranium for enriched nuclear fuel, was an important step toward a diplomatic solution.

On Saturday, Kouchner said Iran was still courting sanctions despite the nuclear fuel accord because it still refused to stop enrichment as demanded by the UN's nuclear watchdog.

After Damascus, Kouchner traveled to Beirut from where he was to head for Egypt to wind up his regional tour in Cairo.

Kouchner welcomed an easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors, as he visited Beirut and Damascus to urge respect for a 2006 ceasefire in Lebanon.

“Nobody is speaking of tension any more, and so this tension has eased,” he told a news conference in Beirut after talks with leaders in Lebanon and Syria that left him “rather reassured.”

Kouchner attributed the new climate to the launch of US-mediated indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as to a “clarification” of Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

“We cannot be resigned to a constant state of tension, even if it is decreasing,” he told journalists on his plane to Beirut after a meeting in Damascus earlier with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Beirut, Kouchner held talks with President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri before continuing on to Cairo to meet his Egyptian and Spanish counterparts, Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Miguel Angel Moratinos.

France’s foreign minister, briefing reporters traveling with him, renewed an appeal for all sides to respect UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended a devastating month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

In Damascus, Kouchner expressed France’s concern over Hezbollah’s weaponry, to which Assad gave assurances it was not in the interests of Damascus, Tehran or Hezbollah to trigger a new conflict, a French diplomatic source said.

In his meeting with Kouchner, Assad accused the West of overlooking Israeli violations in the region.

“The region has changed and the West’s policy in the area is no longer acceptable, keeping silent over Israeli violations is no longer acceptable,” Syria’s official news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying.

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle pushed for progress in the Middle East peace process in talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday.

The meeting was the latest on Westerwelle's tour of the region which he is due to continue Sunday with stopovers in Jordan and Syria.

The foreign minister said the German government wanted to impress on all involved their intention to work towards a restart of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Indirect talks were an important step on the road to direct negotiations, he said.

Commenting on Iran's role in the Middle East, Westerwelle called on Tehran for "complete transparency" in it nuclear program. Germany was opposed to Iran acquiring any nuclear weapons.

Westerwelle is due to meet with Jordanian King Abdullah II and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad later in the day, ahead of his return to Germany overnight.

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit the region to promote the Middle East peace process.

Westerwelle said Friday in Beirut that peace in the Mideast is a necessity for the whole world, in comments following talks with Lebanese Premier Saad Hariri.

"Peace and stability in the region is a must, and it is not only in the interest of this region, but it is in the interest of the whole world," he said, during a joint press conference with Hariri.

"Conflicts nowadays are international, and that is why we feel it is our responsibility to support stability and peace."

Westerwelle described talks with Hariri as "fruitful and constructive."

Asked if Germany will continue to participate in the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, Westerwelle said: "We will discuss in the near future this issue."

Hariri said: "Peace in the Middle East region is an important matter, and the German role in it is crucial. Germany is playing an important role in the region, and I have advised the German minister that security in this region and its stability and peace are in the interest of Germany."

Hariri called for progress toward a comprehensive peace in accordance with the 1991 Madrid peace conference and the Arab peace initiative, announced during the Beirut Arab summit in 2002.

The Madrid conference was an early attempt by the international community to start a peace process through negotiations involving Israel and the Palestinians as well as Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

During the Arab summit in Beirut, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who is now king, offered Israel recognition from Arab countries if the Jewish state withdrew from all territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, provided a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem and recognized the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Beirut was the first leg of Westerwelle's ongoing Middle East tour, which is slated to take him to Egypt and Syria.

On Saturday, Westerwelle is to meet with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Foreign Minister Ali Shami. He is also scheduled to visit a German military contingent working with the UN Maritime Task Force, which monitors the Lebanese coast for arms smuggling to the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

In an interview with the London-based al-Hayat newspaper, published Friday, Westerwelle said that Germany was seeking "a comprehensive peace solution, which also takes in other spheres of conflict in the Middle East," to settle Israeli conflicts with Syria and Lebanon.

A Lebanese military expert who requested anonymity told the German Press Agency dpa on Tuesday that Israel has lately called on several countries like France and Germany to intervene to exert pressure on Syria and Lebanon to stop arms shipments to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to continue building up the arsenal controlled by his movement as a way to ward off potential Israeli aggression. Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran and is represented in the Lebanese Parliament, fought a fierce war with Israel in 2006 that destroyed much of southern Lebanon.

The party is the only faction that refused to disarm after Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war ended.

Israel has voiced concerns after claiming that Hezbollah has received several shipments of Scud missiles from Syria through the Lebanese border, a charge Damascus has denied.

Hezbollah argues that its weapons are needed to protect the country against Israel, which withdrew its troops from south Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 33-day war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon, has called for the disarming of Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou stressed upon arrival in Beirut that his country supports Lebanon "in word and deed."

Papandreou praised the "new era of political stability" in Lebanon "which helped restore its position in the international arena."

He vowed that Greece, together with the European Union, will push forward with a new initiative aimed at resumption of indirect Israel-Palestinian talks.

"We will spare no effort with our partners in the European Union to improve the atmosphere surrounding the new initiative aimed at launching indirect Israel-Palestinian negotiations," Papandreou said in an interview published Thursday by the daily An-Nahar.

He stressed the need "not to allow a setback to disrupt the progress that had been achieved" in Middle East peace talks.

Papandreou arrived in Beirut overnight to take part in the opening session of the Arab Economic Forum Thursday. He is also due to meet Lebanese leaders.