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Blair, Syrian President Disagree

Mideast: Referring to the Palestinians, Assad tells visiting premier that there's a distinction between terrorism and resisting occupation.

November 01, 2001|From Associated Press

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a Middle East peace mission, made an overnight visit to Syria that highlighted deep differences in the international campaign against terrorism, then headed to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

Syrian President Bashar Assad gave no indication that he was prepared to restrain violent Palestinian groups that operate from his territory. Syria, which is on the U.S. State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, has long argued that Palestinians have the right to use force in opposing Israel's occupation.

"Resisting occupation is an international right," Assad said at a news conference with Blair after their private talks at the hilltop presidential palace in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

"An act of resistance is different from an act of terrorism," Assad said.

He also criticized the military operation in Afghanistan, where Britain so far is the only nation to join the United States in its bombing campaign.

"We cannot accept what we see on the screen every day--hundreds of innocent civilians dying," Assad said.

Assad was apparently referring to the extensive footage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan that is aired every day by many of the Arab world's television stations. However, the numbers cited by the stations are nowhere near as high as what the Syrian leader suggested.

The Taliban claimed Wednesday that 1,500 people had been killed so far by the U.S.-led campaign. The Pentagon has accused the Taliban of inflating civilian casualty figures, and it says civilians are not intentionally targeted.

Despite Assad's uncompromising words, British officials pronounced themselves satisfied with the first official visit to Syria by a British prime minister.

"Have we opened a bridge of dialogue? I think we have," said a senior British official, who spoke to reporters during the flight to Saudi Arabia on condition of anonymity.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Wednesday that he is prepared to explore the possibility of "new opportunities" in relations with Iran and Syria.

Powell was apparently referring to both countries' denunciations of the Sept. 11 attacks. Iran is also on the State Department's list of terrorism-supporting nations.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley said he also failed in a meeting Monday to convince Assad and other Syrian officials to rein in anti-Israel militants.

"They did not take any responsibility for any groups that use violence in order to achieve political objectives, and from that point of view it was not a satisfactory meeting," Manley said Wednesday in Jerusalem.

Blair said Britain is seeking a lasting cease-fire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to create a base of calm for serious peace negotiations. "Violence from whatever quarter is deeply unhelpful," he said.

Later Wednesday, Blair flew to Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah II. He will travel today to Israel, where both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have said they will meet with him.

"What I will be saying in Israel tomorrow is that we have to get the process going again," Blair told Middle East Broadcasting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

He added, "We all want to see an end to the violence, the injustice and the poverty that is there."

Wednesday appeared to be a difficult day for Blair, and his official spokesman evaded a question about whether anyone during the visit had endorsed the U.S.-led military strikes in Afghanistan.

The spokesman would say only that Blair heard strong condemnation of the terrorist strikes and endorsement of the goal of eliminating terrorism.

British officials said before arriving in Damascus that they had been encouraged by Assad's condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks. They also sensed new possibilities with Assad, 35, who studied in London before succeeding his father, Hafez Assad, who died last year.

Syria is a key Middle East player and has the ultimate word on policy in neighboring Lebanon, where the Hezbollah guerrillas it sponsors have occasionally attacked Israeli targets after the Jewish state pulled out from a south Lebanon border strip last year.

In reaching out to Syria, a Blair spokesman said, Britain was drawing on its experience in promoting peace in its territory of Northern Ireland, where "everybody had to take risks . . . and talk to people who in the past they would not have talked to," the spokesman said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

Assad has made limited moves to loosen the authoritarian style of government he inherited from his father, but he has not deviated from his father's hard-line stance on peace negotiations with Israel.

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