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Lafarge, Total to sign Syrian deals

Int’l Relations

French cement maker Lafarge and major oil company Total will sign deals to boost their activities in Syria in the wake of President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit.

The Lafarge deal to set up two cement factories would make the group, the world's largest cement maker, the biggest foreign investor in Syria, an official traveling with Sarkozy said overnight.

“It's done. It will be signed this month,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Total Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie said Total would sign deals for an oil block extension at Deir Ez Zor and for a gas development deal in the country as well as a separate deal to strengthen its activities in Syria.

Total produces a total of 15,000 barrels per day of crude oil in Syria, out of a company total of 2.4 million barrels per day worldwide.

The Total deals are due to be signed on Thursday evening, after the departure of Sarkozy, whose visit was billed as a political mission to boost ties with Damascus rather than a trip to win business deals.

In addition to the Lafarge and Total deals, Airbus maker EADS and industrial power plant group Alstom have longer-term prospects in the country.

Sarkozy's office has said Airbus is in talks to sell planes to flag carrier Syrianair but that the two sides are years away from a deal.

For its part, EADS, which is bidding for a $35 billion Pentagon tanker refueling deal, has denied holding negotiations with Syria, which is subject to US sanctions because of its support for anti-American groups. The French official who briefed reporters said Alstom was in talks to sell turbines to Syria but that it needs to settle long-standing disputes with the country before a deal can be reached.

Sarkozy is seeing to strengthen ties with Damascus as a reward for what Paris sees as reduced interference in neighboring Lebanon's affairs, and Damascus's support for a deal that ended a political crisis there.

Paris is depicting the effort to rebuild ties as an incremental process.

“I note that French companies' share of the Syrian market has fallen a lot in the past years while for other European countries it has increased,” Sarkozy told a news conference.

“(That is) not very surprising given the state our relations were in,” Sarkozy added.

Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac was a close friend of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Harriri, who was assassinated in 2005. French officials believed Syria was involved, and Paris cut off high-level ties with Damascus.

During his visit to Syria, the first by a Western leader since Hariri's assassination, Sarkozy said he discussed several business prospects, such as an embargo on selling Airbus spare parts to Syria and extending oil major Total's presence. (Reuters)

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