BEIRUT: Hopes rose for an end to the power struggle in Lebanon on Thursday after two days of talks in Paris between parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri and the head of the opposition Reform and Change bloc, MP Michel Aoun. "Meetings are going very well and will continue," Hariri said before leaving the French capital after a third meeting with Aoun.Speaker Nabih Berri called Hariri while he was in Paris to inquire about the latest developments, as well as to mark the occasion of the birthday of the MP’s father, slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri told reporters before leaving Paris that consensus on who will take over the presidency when incumbent Emile Lahoud’s term ends on November 24 would continue to be a subject for "upcoming meetings." Thursday’s talks, he added, focused on the international court that will try suspects in the assassinations of of his father and others.Hariri said he had asked for a "united national stance" from the opposition against the series of assassinations that have plagued the country for much of the past two years.

A joint statement released by Aoun and Hariri prior to Thursday’s talks said they were focusing on finding solutions to the political deadlock that has paralyzed Lebanon for almost a year. The statement said the talks were characterized by "a high spirit of responsibility regarding the serious circumstances encountered by Lebanon at the political, security and economic levels."

"The talks tackled at length the major issues in Lebanon, particularly those related to setting up a free, independent and democratic state as well as facilitating the presidential election in line with the Lebanese Constitution and without any foreign interference," it added.

The statement said "progress has been achieved in bringing disputed viewpoints closer together and [in] overcoming lots of misunderstandings."

The two leaders "agreed to keep meeting to follow up on what has been agreed in the dialogue to re-establish stability and national unity."

The meetings were held in Paris in order to "avoid media pressure and security risks in

Beirut," the statement added.

Sources in Bkirki told The Daily Star that Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir is "optimistic" and expressed relief over how the meetings in Paris progressed.

"There is dialogue, which breaks some of the deadlock, but there needs to be a solution at the end of these talks," the source  quoted Sfeir as saying.

One of Sfeir’s visitors on Thursday was businessman Joseph Ghassoub, a mutual friend who has mediated recent meetings between Aoun and former President Amin Gemayel – one of Hariri’s key allies. Ghassoub confirmed the patriarch’s optimism, telling reporters that Sfeir had received "positive feedback" concerning talks among various Lebanese politicians.

Gemayel also hailed the meetings as a "positive step" toward finding a solution to the feud over the presidency.

"The meeting between General Aoun and MP Hariri is a positive step that will reflect well on the internal political arena struggling to reach a consensus," he said. "The Lebanese feel more at ease as more Lebanese leaders meet and reconnect."

The former president also stressed the importance of the Aoun-Hariri talks building on other initiatives, including Sfeir’s to bring opposition and loyalist Christian figures together and Berri’s to build consensus on the presidency.

Political analyst and Gemayel adviser Salim Sayegh told The Daily Star Thursday that "Hariri sent an envoy to Gemayel, who informed him of the outcomes of the meeting with Aoun."

"We support all meetings that strive to reach a solution and we hope it reaches the broadest possible consensus that can be reached," he added.

Also on Thursday, Hizbullah politburo member Mahmoud Qomati reiterated his party’s stance that a "consensus president is the only and best solution" to the ongoing crisis.

"If a president is elected by simple majority or if the country is run by the current government without a new president, either option will cause chaos and divide the country into two states and two governments," he warned.

The Central News Agency cited sources as saying that before taking any concrete steps, Sfeir is awaiting the outcomes of the Aoun-Hariri talks and of a meeting between French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, in Istanbul on Friday.

The agency also quoted a source in Paris who said that Aoun and Hariri had agreed to break down the current list of presidential candidates into four groupings.

One group includes the "official" candidates from both camps; the second includes candidates accepted separately by the opposition and the majority but who could be "vetoed" by the senior leaders if not agreed on; the third includes neutral candidates without official backing from either side; and the fourth includes two names: General Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, and Banque du Liban Governor Riad Salameh.