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Syria, Lebanon Agree To Border Negotiation

Written for by George Baghdadi, reporting from Damascus.
The presidents of Syria and Lebanon crowned their second day of groundbreaking talks Thursday with an agreement to resume work on formally demarcating the border between the two neighboring countries.

Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's Michel Suleiman made the agreement a day after their nations reestablished full diplomatic ties for the first time in 60 years.

"Both leaders have agreed to resume the work of the joint committee for demarcating the Syrian-Lebanese borders in accordance with a mechanism and priorities both parties would agree on in order to serve the target aspired," Nasseri al-Khouri, head of the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Committee, told reporters.

Nassri was reading a joint statement before the foreign ministers of the two countries, Syria's Walid Muallem and Lebanon's Fawzi Salukh, later held a joint news conference at the end of Suleiman's 2-day visit to Damascus. Both ministers described the summit as, "very successful and constructive."

The border between the two countries is poorly marked in certain places, particularly the Shebaa Farms, a mountainous sliver of land rich in water resources located at the junction of southeast Lebanon, southwest Syria and northern Israel.

The 10 square mile tract of farming land was seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and is now claimed by Beirut, with the backing of Damascus. Israel says it's part of Syria.

Thursday's announcement came a day after al-Assad and Suleiman agreed to establish full diplomatic relations for the first time, taking a step toward healing tensions that have fueled decades of turmoil in Lebanon.

"There are certain procedures that we should follow. Next Thursday, the Lebanese cabinet will sit and take a decision that will establish the diplomatic ties. A week later, we will take the necessary steps with the Syrian Foreign Ministry that will allow us to carry out what we agreed upon," Lebanese Foreign Minister Salukh explained in reply to a question on when ambassadors would be assigned.

Syria agreed to relations only after its influence in Lebanon was guaranteed by the creation on Tuesday of a unity government in Beirut which gives Damascus-allied Hezbollah a strong say in Lebanese decision-making.

Syrian and Lebanese human rights associations urged both countries to focus on the fate of hundreds of people who went missing during the 1975-1990 civil war and after.

"Both leaders have also agreed to reactivate the work of the joint committee in charge of the missing people from both sides," said Nassri, reading from a joint statement by both Presidents.

"The issue of the missing people is thorny and complicated. Communal tombs may need to open... The most important thing is that we should solve this topic away from politicization," Muallem told reporters.
By George Baghdadi