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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Arab foreign ministers in Beijing for China forum

BEIJING: Arab foreign ministers gathered in Beijing for the start Wednesday of a two-day forum with China that was expected to see energy, diplomatic and nuclear issues on the agenda.

Foreign ministers and their representatives from 22 Arab countries were scheduled to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday afternoon ahead of the official start of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum at 4:00 pm (0800 GMT).

While little information has been given by China on the forum's agenda, analysts say it is part of Beijing's push to develop closer trade and political ties with the Arab world, particularly in the energy sector.

Experts say China's main objective in dealing with the oil and gas-rich Arab nations is to secure access to their resources and to expand trade.

Trade between China and the 22 members of the Arab League last year totalled 51.3 billion dollars, a 10-fold increase from a decade earlier.

The forum was also expected to delve into Middle Eastern politics with China inviting Palestinian foreign minister and senior Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahar, despite objections from the United States, Israel and some European nations.

China will become the second United Nations Security Council member after Russia to host a Hamas leader since the radical Islamic movement formed a government following its victory in Palestinian elections in January.

China has said it hopes to use the event to urge Hamas to resume peace negotiations with Israel.

"Our position will be beneficial for the stabilization of the situation there and the improvement of bilateral ties between Israel and Palestine," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Tuesday.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, who is the co-chair of the forum, reiterated his position after arriving in Beijing that the US and Israeli-led effort to isolate Hamas was not helpful in resolving the Middle East conflict.

"The best thing is to engage Hamas rather than to isolate them," he told the official Xinhua news agency in an interview.

The Iran nuclear issue is also expected to be on the agenda at the forum, said Xinhua, quoting Chinese foreign ministry sources.

Iran offered Tuesday to restart nuclear talks with the European Union but the EU and Washington were still pressing for sanctions if Tehran refuses to halt atomic work that could be weapons-related.
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