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Mediterranean Union Summit Opens In Paris

Heads of delegations arrive for founding summit of Union for the Mediterranean at Paris's Grand Palais
Heads of state, foreign ministers, and other officials from more than 40 countries around the Mediterranean and the European Union have been gathering in Paris to launch a Union for the Mediterranean.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hosting the summit, with the topics to include regional unrest, immigration, and pollution.

Ahead of the summit, Sarkozy said the goal of the union was that "we learn how to love each other in the Mediterranean, instead of continuing to hate and wage war."

The French president was speaking after talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas on the sidelines of the summit.

"The Union for the Mediterranean is a chance, like we did [on July 12] with Syria and Lebanon, to talk about the most complex and difficult problems because the Union for the Mediterranean is peace, and peace must come between Israel and the Palestinians," Sarkozy said.

Olmert said Israel and Palestinian representatives had never been so close to a peace agreement, adding that he would like direct talks with Syria.

Progress has already been reported in other areas. Following separate talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Sarkozy announced on July 12 that Syria and Lebanon had agreed on "a historic step forward" to set up embassies in each other's capitals.

Lebanon and Syria have not had full-fledged embassies in each other's countries since both gained independence in the 1940s.

Al-Assad said his French counterpart asked him to use his ties with Iran to help resolve the international standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

"President Sarkozy has asked us to play a role in this issue. Normally we are asked for our opinion, but this time we are being asked to speak to Iran's leaders," al-Assad said. "As far as we are aware, there are no military nuclear projects. And we are of course against all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East."

Critics have dismissed the new union as lacking substance, with longstanding disagreements over key issues such as how to address the Middle East peace process.

Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, the only invited leader in Europe, the Middle East, or Africa to boycott the Paris meeting, has described the union as a new form of colonialism. The kings of Jordan and Morocco pulled out at the last minute, apparently not for political reasons.

There are also rivalries between delegations -- such as Israel and Syria, Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria and Lebanon.

compiled from agency reports