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Clinton, In Beirut, Calls For Free Lebanese Election

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting in Baabda, east of Beirut.
BEIRUT -- U.S. Secretary of S tate Hillary Clinton urged Lebanese to hold an "open and free" election in June without outside interference.

Clinton arrived in Beirut on April 26 for unannounced talks with President Michel Suleiman six weeks before Lebanese vote in a general election pitting a Western-backed coalition against an alliance grouping Hizballah and its allies and backed by Syria and Iran.

"The people of Lebanon must be able to choose their own representatives in open and fair elections, without the specter of violence or intimidation, and free of outside interference," Clinton said in a written statement distributed to reporters aboard her plane.

"Beyond the election, we will continue to support the voices of moderation in Lebanon, and the responsible institutions of the Lebanese state they are working hard to build," she said.

A senior State Department official briefing reporters on the plane said one of Clinton's main objectives was to reassure the Lebanese that U.S. efforts to engage Syria and Iran would not come at their expense.

"Our discussions with the Syrians are not coming at the expense of the support for Lebanon's independence," the official said.

Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hizballah, a political and guerrilla group which fought a war against Israel in 2006 and which has representatives in the Lebanese government and parliament.

Clinton's visit also coincided with the fourth anniversary of the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

U.S.-led international pressure and domestic protests forced Syria to end 29 years of military presence in Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

"Our ongoing support for the Lebanese Armed Forces remains a pillar of our bilateral cooperation," Clinto said in the statement.