Syrian leader makes surprise visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt

JEDDAH (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad made surprise journeys to Saudi Arabia and Egypt Sunday, seeking support from Arab leaders as he faces an unprecedented challenge from a defecting ex-vice president and alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese leader.
Arab diplomats said the efforts were focused on finding a face-saving way for Assad to deal with the most recent interview request by the UN team investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The diplomats, who refused use of their names because of the sensitivity of the talks, said one proposal being put to Assad called for him to send an envoy to take the investigators’ questions. Assad would then provide written answers and send them back to investigators.

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.

Assad’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt came after he implied in a press interview published Saturday that he has rejected the UN investigation’s second request to interview him about Hariri’s February 14 killing in a Beirut bombing.

The trip also follows upheaval in Syria after former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam claimed in a series of interviews that Assad had threatened Hariri long before he was assassinated. Khaddam, a longtime stalwart of the ruling Syrian Baath Party, left his leadership post last summer, several months after Hariri was killed.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal came to Damascus earlier Sunday and met with Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa. He said he had travelled to Syria to prepare for Assad’s “important” Saudi visit, but refused to give any details.

A few hours later, Assad flew to the Saudi port city of Jeddah, where he met with King Abdullah. Hariri was closely aligned with Saudi Arabia.

A joint Saudi-Syrian statement issued following the Assad-King Abdullah talks said the two discussed regional developments, including Iraq and the Palestinian terrorises. King Abdullah stressed the kingdom’s keenness to “improve relations between Syria and Lebanon and strengthen them in a way that safeguards the interests of both countries and the security of the region,” according to a statement carried by Syria’s official news agency, SANA.

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.” After the Saudi talks, Assad continued to Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, for a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak in another unexpected visit, SANA 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 Arabiya 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.

The United Nations inquiry into Hariri’s murder has implicated the Syrian government and accused it of failing to cooperate fully with the probe. That prompted the Security Council to warn Syria that it faced “further isolation” by the international community.

The accusations against Syria and the hasty withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April brought relations between the neighbours to their lowest point since they gained independence from France in 1943.

Khaddam’s charges prompted the UN investigation to renew its demand to question Assad, Al Sharaa and other Syrian officials. Assad said in a newspaper interview published Saturday that he had international immunity, implying he would not be interviewed.

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.

A columnist in Beirut’s staunchly anti-Syrian An-Nahar newspaper on Sunday criticised Assad for not cooperating with the UN probe.

“Assad has chosen confrontation over real cooperation with the international investigation … which opens the door to grave repercussions,” Ali Hamadeh warned. “The mentality in Damascus has not changed. And it seems it will never change.” An-Nahar quoted Khaddam as having told French RTL radio that he had met with German Judge Detlev Mehlis, the outgoing head of the Hariri investigation team, in Paris and gave him “specific facts” about Hariri’s assassination.

“Mehlis asked me several questioned related to the Hariri assassination, and I replied with whatever information I had. Naturally, the investigations team’s work is secret and I have no right to reveal them,” Khaddam was quoted as saying.

In an extraordinary session last week, the Syrian parliament accused Khaddam, who has been living with his family in Paris for the past few months while writing a book, of high treason. The government has seized his assets.

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