Lebanon's Hariri heads for landmark talks in Syria

BEIRUT Sat Dec 19, 2009 4:01pm IST

Lebanon's Parliament majority leader Saad al-Hariri speaks during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Beirut June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Cynthia Karam/Files

Lebanon's Parliament majority leader Saad al-Hariri speaks during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Beirut June 12, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Cynthia Karam/Files

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will visit Damascus on Saturday for landmark talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hariri's office said.

The visit will be the new prime minister's first to Syria and looks set to close the chapter on nearly five years of animosity between Damascus and a broad political alliance led by Hariri.

Lebanese political sources expect the two leaders to agree on opening a new page in their personal relationship and on strengthening cooperation between their governments to guarantee Lebanon's stability.

Hariri's "March 14" alliance accused Syria of assassinating his father, statesman Rafik al-Hariri, in February 2005. They also blamed Damascus for attacking and killing other politicians and journalists.

Syria denies the allegations. A special court based in The Hague has yet to indict anyone for the Hariri killing.

Outrage in Lebanon over the Hariri assassination and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April 2005, ending three decades of military presence in its smaller neighbour.

Saad al-Hariri's coalition has often clashed in the past with Syria's allies in Lebanon, led by the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah, and the political crisis has threatened to plunge Lebanon into a new civil war.

Rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which backs Hariri, earlier this year eased tension and allowed Hariri, who won a parliamentary election in June, to form a unity government that includes Hezbollah and other Damascus allies.

(Writing by Nadim Ladki; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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