Syria wants "true friendship" with France, with mutual respect for each other's interests, Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara said Monday, on the eve of a visit to Paris where both sides will seek to smooth feathers ruffled by recent remarks by a French minister.
French Defence Minister Alain Richard last week raised a storm of protest in Damascus and Beirut with remarks suggesting Syria did not wish to reach a peace agreement with Israel which would challenge "its (own) domination over Lebanon."
"The French government has provided explanations which we accept about Alain Richard's comments," Shara told journalists here, after a meeting with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.
"We are not looking for confrontation. We want a genuine relationship which takes into account the interests of each side, and which expresses the friendship felt by Syria and Lebanon towards France, and vice versa," he said, when asked if Richard's comments were aimed at putting pressure on Syria.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine speaking in Amman Sunday played down Richard's remarks. He said his colleague was "expressing the fear that this (alleged Syrian) way of thinking would not necessarily lead to peace as we desire."
"There is no reason to interpret this as a change in French policy," he added.
Shara said his visit to Paris was part of the "continuous concertation" between the two countries "in the light of Israel's refusal to support a fair and comprehensive peace."
"There is one essential point that must be clear not only to the French president, government and people, but to the whole world, namely that Syria and Lebanon want peace through the implementation of UN Resolutions 242, 338 and 425, and an exchange of land for peace," he said.
UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 called for Israel's withdrawal from lands seized in 1967.
Resolution 425, passed in 1978, called for Israel to withdraw "forthwith" from Lebanese territory.
Talks between Syria and Israel have foundered on the demand by Damascus that Israel give a prior commitment to return the whole of the strategic Golan Heights which it captured in 1967.
The Al-Baath daily of Syria's ruling party said Monday that France's official position on the Middle East peace talks was reflected by President Jacques Chirac, "who supports a peace based on international resolutions."
The paper hit out implicitly at Richard, criticising those who "only interpret the peace process from the Israeli standpoint, which is certainly not in France's interest."
Paris has frequently made it clear it would prefer Israel's pullback from Lebanon to take place within the framework of an accord, voicing concern that a unilateral withdrawal could lead to instability.
Shara, speaking after his meeting with Lahoud, warned that any Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon must be "total and absolute, from the Lebanese seas, land and skies".
Otherwise, "it would mean that Israel wants to perpetuate the current situation, only worse, having proposed something that it would not have carried out. That would be unacceptable."
"Syria and Lebanon offer peace while Israel offers tension. It is up to Israel to choose, and that is what I will tell the French leadership," he said.
Shara met Lahoud for about 90 minutes, in the presence of Prime Minister Salim Hoss and the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan.
During the meeting he handed him a message from Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He told the official Tele-Liban television station beforehand that he was bringing Easter greetings to the Lebanese government and people, but gave no other details - BEIRUT (AFP)
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