Sat, Aug 16, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Syrian president rebuffs US request to rein in Hezbolla

AFP , DAMASCUS

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rebuffed renewed US pressure to rein in Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Thursday during an unscheduled visit here by Washington's top Middle East diplomat.

Assad told William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, that Israel and not Hezbollah was the principal source of violence and instability in the region.

"Appeals for calm and restraint should not be addressed solely to Lebanon, while a blind eye is turned to the massacres and assassinations being carried out by Israel," the official SANA news agency quoted Assad as saying.

The Syrian president questioned whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was even committed to a US-backed "road map" for Middle East peace, given his rejection of President George W Bush's calls for the abandonment of a security fence Israel is constructing through the West Bank.

"Sharon is continuing to build the wall of discrimination despite the opposition of Bush to the establishment of settlements and his army is launching incursions [into West Bank towns], destroying houses and killing Palestinians," Assad said.

"Wisdom compels the US, the world's biggest power, to help the Palestinians to recover their rights and to establish a just and durable peace in the region," he said, accusing Sharon of a "strategy of war and not a policy of peace."

On Iraq, Assad said Syria is "opposed to the American occupation and hopes that this country is led by a legitimate government."

The meeting was termed "constructive" by the head of the foreign ministry's information department, Bussaina Shabane, who said that differences still existed between the two sides on a number of issues.

US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Burns had made his unscheduled visit to Damascus to discuss "a range of issues," including recent Hezbollah attacks into the disputed Shebaa Farms area on Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

Those attacks have drawn swift retaliation from Israel and US demands for both Lebanon and Syria to use their influence to rein in Hezbollah, and Burns repeated that message to Assad.

He "stressed the need for Syria to do what it can and should do to restrain support for these groups," Casey said.

Syria has rejected similar demands in the past but did take some limited steps to downgrade offices in Damascus earlier this year after a visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

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