`History speeding up` with Mubarak fall: French PM

Francois Fillon said no pundits could have predicted Hosni Mubarak`s fall.

Riyadh: French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in Saudi Arabia on Saturday that president Hosni Mubarak`s ouster has opened "a new page" in Egypt that no pundits could have predicted.

Fillon told reporters he discussed the dramatic events in Egypt, where Saudi Arabia`s ally Mubarak was toppled on Friday, with the crown prince and Defence Minister, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and with Prince Nayef, the Interior Minister.

The conservative state, whose King Abdullah is convalescing in Morocco, on Saturday broke its silence to hail the "peaceful transition of power" in Egypt and hope "the efforts of Egypt`s armed forces will bring peace and stability”.

"History is speeding up," Fillon said, declining to speculate on a domino effect in the Arab world following last month`s overthrow of Tunisia`s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia.

The Prime Minister said the fall of Mubarak in the face of more than two weeks of mass protests covered almost round-the-clock by the international media had taken governments around the world by surprise.

"We must realise that no observer, no government in any country... could have known what was going to happen," said Fillon, who said his talks in Riyadh also covered the deadlocked Middle East peace process, Lebanon and Iran.

Earlier, on board a French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier off the Saudi Red City port city of Jeddah, Fillon saluted Mubarak`s "courageous" decision to step down and praised his contribution to the cause of Middle East peace.

"France pays homage to this courageous and necessary decision," he said, urging the "new Egyptian authorities" to carry out reforms towards making their country a "free and pluralist society”.

"With the departure of president Mubarak, a new page has opened for Egypt," he said aboard the Charles de Gaulle, flagship of the French Navy that is currently taking part in joint exercises with the Saudi Army.

The French Premier has conceded that the President who ruled Egypt for three decades had paid for his family holiday on the Nile in January, fuelling the outrage of the political opposition in France.

Before more than 1,000 sailors on the Charles de Gaulle, Fillon also applauded the "courage" of the Egyptian people, which "deserves admiration and respect”.

Turning to Iran, he called for stronger sanctions against the Islamic republic over its controversial nuclear programme following the failure of talks last month in Istanbul.

"To convince Iran to return to the negotiating table, we`ll have to strengthen sanctions," he said.

On Friday, a Western diplomat said in Washington that the world`s major powers would consider tougher, non-UN measures against Iran to include financial as well as oil and gas sanctions.

At the talks in Turkey, world powers failed to persuade Iran to take steps to ease suspicions over its nuclear programme, as the defiant Islamic republic insists on uranium enrichment.

Iran`s alleged ambition to acquire nuclear weapons is a "source of concern, not only for the West," said Fillon, referring to Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic`s other Arab neighbours in the Gulf.

"Iran`s possession of a bomb would destabilise the region where tensions are already extremely high. It is an unacceptable prospect for us and for the countries in the region," he said.

Tehran has repeatedly denied it is working to build a nuclear bomb, insisting that its nuclear programme is for purely civilian and research uses.

After holding talks in Riyadh, the French Premier was on Sunday to travel on the United Arab Emirates, where he will visit France`s military base in Abu Dhabi.

Bureau Report