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Assad, in Egypt, Said to Confirm Syrian Interest in Peace Process by Gil Sedan

Syrian President Hafez Assad, visiting Egypt for the first time since relations between the two countries were broken off in 1977, has confirmed indirectly that a new rapprochement between the two nations may lead Syria to join the Middle East peace process.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Alexandria, Egypt, with his host, President Hosni Mubarak, at his side, Assad said his country would join the peace process “depending on other circumstances.”

He did not elaborate, but Syria has traditionally demanded that the Arab-Israeli conflict be resolved at an international peace conference, with the active participation of the Soviet Union.

But Assad said he and Mubarak had agreed there was now a need for “a new move toward peace.”

Syria broke relations with Egypt after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel in November 1977. Sadat signed a peace treaty: with the Jewish state two years later.

A senior Egyptian official told the Israel daily Yediot Achronot on Sunday that Israel should not be concerned about the Syrian-Egyptian rapprochement, since all Arab leaders, includ- ing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, want peace with Israel.

Assad also said there were “no problems” between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria, but rather “differences over methods to achieve peace in the region.”

CONCILIATORY TONE ON IRAQ

Syria has actively supported and given haven to more militant dissident factions of the PLO opposed to the more moderate policy course Yasir Arafat has advocated. Assad has had a history of sour personal relations with the PLO chief, although their relationship is said to have improved recently.

Assad also spoke in a conciliatory tone about his arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein, and predicted a time would come when they would make amends.

“Both Syria and Iraq are Arab countries, and we shall accept what time will dictate,” he said.

Mubarak, for his part, described relations between Iraq and Syria as “much better than it had been in the past.”

Assad concluded his visit to Egypt with Mubarak in an aerial tour of the Sinai peninsula, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War and later returned to Egypt as a result of the 1978 Camp David accords.

Assad said he was impressed by tremendous Egyptian development of the area, particularly in the southern resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The talks between the two leaders were described as “excellent,” and they reportedly have agreed to meet at least once a year.

Assad and Mubarak seem bent on solidifying a Cairo-Damascus axis as a counterweight to attempts by Iraq to seize a leading role in the Middle East.

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