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Wed 15 Oct 2008 04:20 PM

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Syria, Lebanon formally establish diplomatic ties

Move seen as new page in relations between Beirut and its powerful one-time powerbroker.

Syria and Lebanon formally established diplomatic ties on Wednesday for the first time since independence 60 years ago, turning a new page in relations between Beirut and its powerful one-time powerbroker.

A statement signed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and visiting Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Salloukh announced "the launch of diplomatic relations between the Syrian Arab Republic and the Lebanese republic effective today, Oct. 15, 2008".

"The statement reaffirms the determination of both parties to reinforce and consolidate their relations on the basis of mutual respect, the sovereignty and independence of each and to preserve privileged fraternal relations between the two brotherly countries in order to respond to the aspiration of both peoples," it added.

The two states had announced in August their intention to establish ties, following a pledge by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his Lebanese opposite number Michel Sleiman in Paris in July.

Wednesday's announcement comes a day after Al-Assad issued a presidential decree to open relations with Lebanon, where Damascus was the main powerbroker for three decades until it was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005.

Relations between the two have often been fractious since then, with accusations by the anti-Damascus parliamentary majority in Lebanon accusing Syria of meddling in the country's affairs.

"Progress being made in terms of bilateral relations between Lebanon and Syria... is a historic step forward on the road to affirm and solidify Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and free decision-making," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said in a statement on Tuesday.

He said hoped the move was "a prelude to a new page [in relations] that will benefit both Lebanon and Syria, having learned from lessons and experiences of the past".

Since 1991, a year after the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, Damascus and Beirut have been tied by a treaty of friendship and cooperation on political, economic and security issues.

The anti-Syrian camp which forms the majority in Lebanon's parliament has long been critical of the treaty as sacrificing the interests of Beirut to the benefit of Damascus.

On Monday, US President George W. Bush warned Syria that it must respect Lebanon's sovereignty, following the deployment of an estimated 10,000 Syrian troops on the border.

Members of the anti-Syrian majority in Beirut say Damascus could be setting the stage to return its forces to their country.

But Sleiman said on Saturday that Lebanon accepted Syria's position that the troop movements were aimed at tackling cross-border smuggling.

Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 under a wave of pressure following the assassination in a massive Beirut bomb blast of former billionaire premier Rafiq Hariri.

Damascus has consistently denied charges of involvement in the murder.

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