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French PM slams MPs for meeting with Syrian 'butcher' Assad

The cross-party group of four French lawmakers met with Syrian leadership despite the country ending diplomatic ties in 2012
Most EU countries ended diplomatic relations with Assad in 2012 (AFP)

France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Thursday that he "condemned with the greatest strength" a decision by three French MPs to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he described as "a butcher".

"I want to condemn this initiative with the greatest strength," Valls told TV station BFMTV.

"For parliamentarians to go without warning to meet a butcher.... I think it was a moral failing."

President Francois Hollande also weighed in a few hours later, saying he condemned French lawmakers meeting with a "dictator who is the cause of one of the worst civil wars of recent years," Hollande told reporters in the Philippines.

A cross-party group of four French MPs, who belong to France-Syria parliamentary friendship groups, made an unofficial trip to the Syrian capital Damascus on Wednesday and held talks with senior ministers. Three of the MPs - not including Socialist Party MP Gerard Bapt who led the delegation – then went on to meet with the Syrian leader.

Upon returning to France the MPs defended their trip, with Bapt saying on France-Inter earlier on Thursday that the visit was made in the hope of promoting a ceasefire.

"One does not have the sense, in Syria, of seeing a government that is about to fall," Bapt said. "If there is to be peace, we have to find a way to talk to each other."

"We met Bashar al-Assad for a good hour. It went very well," Jacques Myard, an MP from former President Nicholas Sarkozy’s opposition centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, told AFP.

He described the trip as "a personal mission to see what is going on, to hear, listen."

Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll stressed on Wednesday that the trip was "in no way an official French initiative".

Myard refused to reveal the content of the talks. Syrian state television said they had discussed "the state of Syrian-French relations, as well as the developments in the Arab world and Europe, especially with regard to terrorism."

France, along with most other EU countries, cut diplomatic ties with Syria in 2012 and has long supported the “moderate” Syrian opposition, seeking the removal of Assad from power. Only the Czech Republic and Bulgaria have retained embassies in Damascus, with the Czechs hosting the US interests section.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, more than 200,000 people have been killed over the last four years.

France is part of the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition that has launched an aerial offensive against IS and some other militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

The US has admitted that it has informed the Assad government about some of its actions, but denies working with the Syrian authorities directly, despite growing speculation from analysts that the West could be tempering its stance toward the embattled leader.

France, however, has so far only conducted strikes over Iraq and it is not known whether the French coalition representatives have had any kind of contact with Assad.