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Monday, December 18, 2006

Assad visits Russia at time of Mideast crises

Agence Fance-Presse: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad heads Monday for Moscow with the Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian crises on the agenda at a time when Russia is seeking to raise its profile in the troubled Middle East.

Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will examine "means to resolve the crises", in a visit focused more on politics than economic ties, according to Evgeny Posukhov, a Russian diplomat posted in the Syrian capital.

The three-day mission comes hot on the heels of a Moscow visit by Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora whose Western-backed cabinet is facing a revolt by a pro-Syrian opposition intent on bringing down the government.

It also coincides with a two-day visit to Moscow by the director general of Israeli foreign ministry, Aharon Abramowitch, who arrived Sunday in the Russian capital.

In a communique Sunday, the Israeli government said Abramowitch would be seeing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Talks with security council secretary Igor Ivanov were also expected.

Assad and Putin were to discuss a UN plan to set up an international tribunal to try suspects in the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri after which probes have implicated Syria.

Syria denied any involvement and ended a military deployment in Lebanon of almost three decades in April 2005. The Beirut government now accuses former powerbroker Damascus of orchestrating the political crisis in Lebanon.

Siniora met Putin on Friday in a bid to have Moscow pressure Syria over the political unrest, seen by his government as a Damascus-backed coup bid. The visit came amid EU warnings for Iran and Syria not to meddle in Lebanon.

According to Posukhov, Moscow supports the establishment of an international tribunal but Putin will seek to reassure Assad that it "not be used as a means of pressure on Syria".

Growing calls for Syria and Iran to be consulted on efforts to curb the burgeoning violence in Iraq, despite the opposition of the US administration which seeks to isolate Damascus, will also feature in the Putin-Assad talks.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Posukhov said Syria's links with the ruling Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas whose political supremo Khaled Meshaal is based in Damascus would also be raised.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday brushed off a call by Assad for a resumption of peace talks, saying Damascus first had to stop supporting militant groups.

In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, Assad called on Israeli and US leaders to negotiate with Damascus to revive peace talks which have been frozen for almost seven years.

Russian press reports said that Russia -- which 15 years ago restored diplomatic ties with Israel that had been broken since the Six-Day War in June 1967 -- was seeking to restore its role as a key actor in the Middle East following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

"Syria is a key country in the region... It is not possible to resolve the situation in Iraq without contacts with Damascus," wrote Fedor Lukianov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Politics.

"Russia wants to reserve the role of privileged interlocutor of Bashar al-Assad," he wrote.

On the economic front, the Russian diplomat in Damascus said, Syria and Russia aim to double their two-trade from the current level of some 300 million dollars a year. Moscow remains Syria's main arms supplier.

Assad heads to Russia after visits to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
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