UNITED NATIONS, AP -Lebanon’s prime minister challenged Syria on Friday to show it accepts true independence in its smaller neighbor by establishing diplomatic relations and marking the two countries’ disputed border.
Syria’s deputy U.N. ambassador responded that his country respected Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence and is willing to demarcate the border. But Syria is not yet willing address the most contentious issue, control of the disputed Chebaa Farms area, deputy U.N. ambassador Milad Atieh said.
He also said Damascus will consider exchanging ambassadors “if there is a mutual desire.”
Israel captured the Chebaa Farms area when its forces seized Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Lebanon claims the area but the United Nations determined that it is Syrian, and that Syria and Israel should negotiate its fate.
The Syrian president has publicly backed the Lebanese claim but Atieh said Damascus would only address the issue after an Israeli withdrawal.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called Syria’s response unacceptable, saying Lebanon wants to quickly demarcate the entire border, including Chebaa Farms, on maps. The boundary in the Chebaa Farms area can physically be marked after an Israeli withdrawal, he said.
Saniora also said he wants to establish the same formal diplomatic ties that Syria has with other Arab nations.
The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 led to Syria’s withdrawal of troops from Lebanon after 29 years. Anti-Syrian legislators gained the majority in parliamentary elections that followed.
Saniora told the Security Council that “it is a major challenge to put the Lebanese-Syrian relations on the right footing.”
“The scars left by the dramatic developments of the past 19 months, and the heavy-handed interference in Lebanese domestic affairs by the Syrian security establishment for many years, are not easy to heal,” he said.
The 14 major Lebanese political parties agreed unanimously that relations between Lebanon and Syria “should be strong and positive based on mutual respect, parity and noninterference,” Saniora said.
He said a Syrian “positive response” to requests to establish diplomatic relations and delineate the border would be “an indication that the Syrian government is beginning to accept the idea that good relations are possible between Syria and an independent Lebanon.”
Saniora said he had asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to clarify what specific actions would be required to declare the Chebaa Farms Lebanese territory, and Annan promised to respond after studying the request with U.N. legal advisers.