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Senior EU official holds talks with Hezbollah

By HUSSEIN DAKROUB  

BEIRUT (AP) — The European Union’s foreign affairs chief held talks Saturday with a Hezbollah legislator in the first meeting between a senior EU diplomat and the Iranian-backed militant Shiite group.

The meeting was part of an outreach by European powers to Hezbollah, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist group. Britain has also had contacts in recent months with Hezbollah’s political wing in what it has described as an attempt to encourage the group to abandon violence and play a constructive political role in the deeply divided country.

The group’s political role was left uncertain after Hezbollah and its allies suffered a major setback in last week’s parliamentary election. The pro-Western coalition that defeated it could form a national unity government that includes Hezbollah and its partners.

Fears that a Hezbollah victory could have increased the influence of the group’s Iranian backers helped swing the vote against it.

Hezbollah lawmaker Hussein Hajj Hassan called his meeting with the EU’s Javier Solana a “goodwill gesture from the European Union toward Hezbollah.”

The meeting, he said, was an attempt by the EU “to get to know Hezbollah better and to keep contacts with it.”

Solana’s Mideast tour will also include talks on attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. His discussions with Lebanese officials focused on the results of the country’s parliamentary election and efforts to form a new government.

The United States shuns Hezbollah. Asked about the divergence between the EU and U.S. approach to Hezbollah, Solana said, “Hezbollah is part of political life in Lebanon and is represented in the Lebanese parliament.”

Hassan said he briefed Solana on what he said were Israel’s almost daily military flights over Lebanon in breach of a U.N. resolution that ended the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006.

He also spoke of the alleged Israeli spy networks in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have arrested about 100 people suspected of spying for or collaborating with Israel in recent weeks.

The lawmaker also told Solana that the sensitive issue of whether to disarm Hezbollah was being dealt with in broad political discussions led by President Michel Suleiman.

Political factions have so far failed to agree on a defense strategy to possibly integrate Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets into the Lebanese armed forces.

Hezbollah has rejected local and international calls to disarm, saying its weapons are essential to defend Lebanon against any Israeli attack. The group led a guerrilla war against Israel’s 18-year occupation of a border strip in southern Lebanon that ended in 2000.

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