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Mitchell Says No Mideast Peace at Lebanon Expense

Yara Bayoumy

Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri (L) talks with US envoy George Mitchell (R) after their meeting in Beirut. The United States will not sacrifice Lebanon as it seeks to reach comprehensive peace in the Middle East, Mitchell said on Friday. (AFP/Joseph Barrak)

BEIRUT - U.S. envoy George Mitchell said on Friday a Middle East peace agreement would not come at Lebanon's expense and praised this week's election as an "important milestone" for the country.

Mitchell, who has Lebanese roots, is on a tour that has taken him to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt and Jordan as part of U.S. President Barack Obama's Arab-Israeli peace push. He is due to travel to Syria later on Friday.

Washington is seeking a swift renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as well as a comprehensive peace deal which not only involves Israel and the Palestinians, but Syrians, Lebanese and other surrounding countries.

"Lebanon will play a key role in the long-term effort to build lasting comprehensive peace and stability in the Middle East," Mitchell said after meeting Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"Clearly there can be no lasting solution reached at Lebanon's expense and we look forward to continuing to work with Lebanon to build this solution."

Privately, Lebanese officials said they would inform Mitchell of Lebanon's opposition to naturalising some 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in the country, arguing that doing so would upset Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance.

Most of the refugees, who make up 10 percent of Lebanon's population, are Sunni Muslims.

This is the first time Mitchell has visited Lebanon in his visits to the region since he was appointed Middle East envoy in January. Mitchell had been reluctant to visit Lebanon until the outcome of a parliamentary election held on Sunday was known.

A U.S.-backed coalition, led by billionaire politician Saad al-Hariri, won 71 of 128 seats in parliament, against their opponents in an alliance that includes Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

The surprise result has pleased the U.S. administration which had indicated it would condition its aid to Lebanon depending on who won the vote. Obama called President Michel Suleiman to congratulate him on the election.

"These elections were an important milestone for this country. The United States remains steadfast in its support for a sovereign, free, and independent Lebanon," Mitchell said.

"We look forward to continuing to build our strong bilateral relations, to working with the new government, including in the effort to bring comprehensive peace and stability in the entire Middle East," he said.

Mitchell has assured the Palestinians of Washington's commitment to a state of their own, saying its establishment was the only viable to solution to their conflict with Israel.

At the same time, the veteran envoy and former U.S. senator, has promised Israel its alliance with the United States would remain strong despite their differences.

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