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Christopher: `differences’ Dash Hopes of Israel-syrian Progress

After more than two hours of talks with Syrian President Hadez Assad in Damascus, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has dashed any hopes of any short-term breakthrough in negotiations between Israel and Syria.

Christopher said after his meeting Monday that there are still “solid differences” between the Israeli and Syrian negotiating positions.

Christopher, who was in the region to attend the Middle East and North Africa economic conference in the Jordanian capital of Amman, said he had met with Assad to get the latest Syrian position in its deadlocked peace talks with Israel.

But even before meeting with Assad, Christopher had not planned to engage in a round of shuttle diplomacy that would take him from Damascus to Jerusalem – an indication of his pessimism at this time about bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table.

Talks between Israeli and Syrian military experts broke off in late June over differences on security arrangements for the Golan Heights once an agreement was reached.

Israel maintained earlier this year that it would agree to a phased withdrawal on the Golan in exchange for a full peace with Syria.

But Assad called for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan as a precondition for restarting negotiations.

Syria also opposed a proposal for Israel to maintain an early-warning ground station on the Golan in the wake of a withdrawal, saying that it was an affront to Syrian sovereignty over the area.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking to reporters at the Knesset on Monday, said the talks with Syria were not only deadlocked over technical issues – including at what diplomatic level to resume the negotiations – but also involved disagreements over substance.

“It become clear that Syria’s demand [was] that Israel will change its position on certain issues in the security arrangements as a precondition for negotiations,” Rabin told Israel Radio. “This was not acceptable.”

Meanwhile, hours before Christopher met with Assad, Israeli troops killed three members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement after a band of the Shi’ite gunmen were spotted planting roadside bombs in southern Lebanon.

Fighting escalated throughout the day, with the two sides exchanging an estimated 350 mortar shells and rockets.

Violence often flares up in southern Lebanon – where Syria backs Hezbollah effort to drive Israel out of its security zone – when Christopher attempts to mediate between the Israeli and Syrian positions.

Syria, which maintains an estimated 30,000 troops in Lebanon, has repeatedly used Hezbollah attacks against Israel as a bargaining chip in an effort to force Israel back to the negotiating table.

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