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French Version

Saudi bid to end Lebanese-Syrian rift

Assad seeks Arab support in face of increasing international pressure

Syrian President Bashar Assad made surprise journeys to Saudi Arabia and Egypt on Sunday for talks on finding a face-saving solution to a UN request to interview him about the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

At a summit with Assad in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi King Abdullah called for an improvement to crisis-stricken relations between Damascus and Beirut in the name of regional security.

Abdullah "asserted the need to consolidate and strengthen Syrian-Lebanese relations," said a joint Saudi-Syrian statement issued after the summit.

Lebanese-Syrian relations should be improved "in all sectors in order to protect the interests of the two brotherly countries and the security of the region," said the statement read on Saudi state television.

The statement said the two parties agreed on "activating the joint Saudi-Syrian committee, and to intensify the communication between them in order to serve the Arab and Islamic issues."

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal came to Damascus earlier Sunday and met with Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. He said he had traveled to Syria to prepare for Assad's "important" Saudi visit, but refused to give any details.

After leaving Jeddah, Assad stopped off in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, across the Red Sea, for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.

An Egyptian presidential source said that Assad had a one-on-one meeting with Mubarak, later expanded to include members of both delegations, but declined to comment further.

Assad said in remarks published on Saturday that he would only agree to testify to the UN commission if the request had a legal basis.

"Any request of this kind, based on legal basis, we are with it," he told the Egyptian weekly Al-Osboa, but stressed that he had "international immunity."

Arab diplomats said one face-saving proposal being put to Assad called for him to send an envoy meet with the investigators to take their questions and return them to Damascus. Assad would then provide written answers and send them back to investigators.

The daily Al-Hayat, quoting diplomatic sources, reported Sunday that Sharaa, who accompanied Assad to Jeddah, had written to the UN probe agreeing to be interviewed but stating Assad was still "studying" the request.

The letter stresses "the Syrian president's immunity" and that his questioning would "violate Syrian sovereignty," according to Al-Hayat.

The diplomats also said Assad is seeking stronger Arab support for Syria - including convening an Arab summit to discuss Syria's strained relations with the West.

Mubarak met with Saudi King Abdullah last week in an apparently fruitless attempt to find a compromise which, in turn, evidently prompted the king to send his foreign minister to meet with Assad on Sunday.

The trip also follows upheaval in Syria after former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam claimed in a series of interviews that Assad had threatened Hariri long before he was assassinated.

In the Al-Osboa interview, Assad denied that he had threatened Hariri in a meeting to discuss extending the term of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, which the slain ex-premier opposed.

"I am direct and frank. I don't know what others meant by threatening. This never happened and the aim was to connect the threat with the assassination. The game is clear.

Nobody attended the last meeting between me and Hariri, therefore, how did they tell these allegations?"

Assad accused Khaddam of being part to the anti-Syrian schemes and activities even when he was vice president but could not prove it.

"I think he was involved in the planning long ago and he was a basic party to it, but until now, we don't have certain details," Assad said.

Assad could not say who was the prime beneficial from Hariri's killing, but he suggested Israel and unnamed Lebanese powers.

"I don't have evidence or indications, the beneficiary could be Israel, whether directly or indirectly and there is another beneficiary, we have to say if there are certain Lebanese powers capable of carrying out this act ... but I think the patriotic Lebanese powers are not involved, therefore we have to look for other powers which have interest in the assassinations," he said.

There has been some speculation that Khaddam's public break with the Assad regime, formally announced in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiyya television on December 30, 2005, had been encouraged by Saudi Arabia and intended as a message for the Syrian leadership to fully cooperate with the UN probe.

But Khaddam, in an interview with The Associated Press this week, denied the allegations.

Beirut 09-01-2006
The Daily Star

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