Kerry holds talks on Mali, Syria with French leadership

AFP , Wednesday 27 Feb 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry discusses Malian and Syrian crises with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris

US-French Relations
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, at center left of the table, meets with French President Francois Hollande, opposite, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 (Photo: AP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry and French President Francois Hollande held talks Wednesday on Mali and Syria and a proposed trans-Atlantic deal to create the world's largest free trade zone.

Kerry spent just over an hour at the Elysee Palace presidential residence on Wednesday morning. He then held talks with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and was due to address a joint press conference in the afternoon.

Hollande's office said Kerry and the French leader had discussed revived plans for a free trade accord between the EU and the 27-nation European Union (EU).

"France is favourable in principle but would like it to conform to the (EU's) Common Agricultural Policy" an aide said.

"They also discussed Mali, Syria and the need to relaunch the Middle East peace process," he added.

After his talks in Paris, Kerry was due to fly on to Rome for a "Friends of Syria" meeting on Thursday. The conflict has claimed 70,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

The main talking point during Kerry's Paris stopover -- which followed halts in London and Berlin -- was Mali, where France sent in troops on January 11 to stop Islamists holding the north from pushing down to the capital Bamako.

The French intervention has driven Islamist rebels -- composed of various groups -- from cities in the north of the west African country, but clashes and guerrilla attacks have continued.

Mali has become the new symbol of the fight against terrorism after Afghanistan and Washington sent transport planes and drones to boost the French-led intervention, currently backed by the African force AFISMA.

"Now, the French have decided it's enough of a threat to them that they're taking the lead and they're engaged in trying to work to strengthen the government," Kerry said in Berlin on Tuesday.

"They don't want to be there, I assure you, for the long term."

Washington and Paris have not always been in sync on Mali, which was initially supposed to have a west African force come in to stop the advancing Islamists.

That was held up partly due to financial and weapons constraints faced by African nations, prompting Paris to send troops to its former colony to prevent the Islamists from marching on the capital.

French officials had voiced frustration with what they saw as foot-dragging by the US administration on providing logistical support to the French intervention, but any issues appear now to have been resolved.

American officials have stressed that Washington had already given $96 million (73 million euros) to help train the African force, which may evolve into a UN peacekeeping mission.

French officials said the other main items on the agenda were the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, which have sparked global alarm, as well as the dragging conflict in Syria.

Citing US and European officials, the Washington Post newspaper said the White House is mulling a major policy shift on Syria and is toying with the idea of supplying rebels with direct aid like body armour, armoured vehicles and even military training.

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