GENEVA (Oct. 31)
Leaders and supporters of the Lebanese government and of the warring factions opposing it formally opened their conference here today, under the chairmanship of President Amin Gemayel, aimed at national reconciliation. They are scheduled to hold their first working session tomorrow.
The conference will attempt to resolve differences that led to 10 years of bloody civil war in Lebanon with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands. The differences themselves in some cases relate to centuries of strife between the various Christian and Moslem sects incorporated into the Lebanese state which the French carved out of their Syrian mandate in 1943.
Syria and Israel, whose forces occupy different parts of Lebanon — and the United States which has been trying to mediate the conflict — are directly interested parties.
No conference agenda has been announced. But one of the major issues is the fate of the U.S.-orchestrated withdrawal and security agreement signed by Israel and Lebanon last May 17 but still not ratified by the Lebanese government. The leaders of the four Moslem and Christian opposition groups want the conference to scrap the agreement. Backers of the Gemayel government oppose this demand to a greater or lesser degree.
Pierre Gemayel, the 78-year-old founder of the Christian Phalangist party and father of President Gemayel, backs the accord to the hilt. Other government supporters appear lukewarm.
One of the most vehement opponents of the pact is Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Another, Nabith Berri, a representative of the Shiite Moslem Amal group, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that “Before we can start discussing Lebanon’s future, we must rid ourselves of the past and especially of the humiliating agreement signed with Israel last spring.”
Former Lebanese President Sulieman Franjieh, leader of a Christian faction opposed to the Gemayel regime, suggested that the United Nations adopt resolutions to replace the May 17 agreement.
Syria has long been exerting pressure on the Gemayel government to repudiate the accord with Israel and is expected to continue to do so at the conference where the Syrian Foreign Minister, Abdel Halim Khaddom, has observer status. Another observer is the Saudi Arabian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
The U.S. is represented by special Mideast envoy Richard Fairbanks who reportedly will be available for consultation but will not be present in the meeting hall.
ISRAELI DIPLOMAT MEETS WITH FACTION LEADERS
There is no official observer for Israel. But Lebanese sources said today that an Israeli diplomat, not identified, is now posted “somewhere in the Geneva region” and has met with the leaders of several factions.
The sources said these included Jumblatt who was clearly warned not to press demands for a clear break with Israel but to take a moderate approach for the sake of both countries. The Israeli reportedly held his private meetings at Montreux where Jumblatt was staying prior to his arrival in Geneva today.
PRISONER EXCHANGE DISCUSSED
It was reported here, meanwhile, that Israeli and Palestinian representatives have renewed their talks aimed at an exchange of prisoners. The Palestinians hold eight Israeli soldiers captured in the war in Lebanon last year. Six are prisoners of the Palestine Liberation Organization and two are held captive by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, headed by Ahmed Jibril. The Palestinians reportedly turned down an Israeli offer to exchange some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for their eight soldiers.
According to the Swiss Telegraphic Agency, these meetings are being held in Geneva. The PLO is represented by Samal Sorani, a member of its executive committee and Jibril’s group by Omar Shehabi. The Swiss news agency did not identify the Israeli representatives.
The talks have been hampered by the PLO’s internal strife. There is a lack of communications between PLO chief Yasir Arafat’s supporters, now surrounded by dissidents in northern Lebanon and their representatives in Western Europe. The Palestinians nevertheless claim they can deliver the Israeli prisoners safely if an agreement is reached. The International Red Cross has not been involved in the negotiations.