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French foreign minister arrives in Beirut

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner flew into Beirut late Friday to prepare for a state visit by President Nicolas Sarkozy to Lebanon...

Sarkozy will be the first head of state to meet newly-elected Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. Kouchner arrived at Beirut International Airport aboard an executive jet to start preparing for Sarkozy's scheduled visit on Saturday to Beirut.

Sarkozy's one day visit to Lebanon will include a visit to southern Lebanon, where he will meet his country's troops who are working among the United Nations Interim Forces in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL).

He is to hold talks with Suleiman and other senior government officials, the Lebanese presidential palace said in a statement.

Sarkozy, who will be accompanied by Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Defense Minister Herve Morin and Kouchner, will also give a speech before the French military, the statement said.

Created through a United Nations resolution in 1978 to monitor the situation in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL has been considerably strengthened since the Israeli army launched an offensive against the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah in July 2006.

The UN mission is composed of approximately 13,000 soldiers from 26 countries, with 15 of them from the 27-member European Union, according to official figures. With 1,800 troops serving in the operation, the French contingent is the second-largest after Italy, which has about 2,900 soldiers there.

France's chief of general staff, General Jean-Louis Georgelin; Jean-Francois Cope, president of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) group in the national assembly; and UMP secretary general Patrick Devedjian will also accompany the president during the visit. Others members of the delegation include former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Christiane Kammermann, French diplomatic sources said.

'With this unprecedented delegation,' Sarkozy wants to send 'a message of encouragement, friendship and hope' to the Lebanese nation following the election of Suleiman to the presidency in late May.

The election of the former army general marked the end of 18 months of serious political deadlock that was threatening to plunge Lebanon into yet another bloody civil war.

The French head of state and his delegation, according to the Elysee Palace, are scheduled to hold discussions with 14 heads of Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah.

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