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Clinton and Assad meet in Geneva

President Clinton and the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, are holding talks in Geneva, seen as the best chance for months to salvage stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks. However, all sides have been playing down hopes of a breakthrough.

This content was published on March 26, 2000 - 18:32

President Clinton and the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, are holding talks in Geneva, seen as the best chance for months to salvage stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks. However, all sides have been playing down hopes of a breakthrough.

The United States national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said it was unlikely that the two leaders would announce an immediate renewal of the negotiations, which have been stalled since January.

He said he expected Assad would return to Damascus for consultations, and that Clinton would talk to the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.

A government-run newspaper in Syria said the outcome of the summit was hard to call, and in Israel, Barak told his cabinet the chances of rescuing the peace talks were no better than 50 per cent.

Hopes are nevertheless high, partly because of Assad's presence. The ailing 69 year-old president rarely travels, and is becoming personally involved in the peace process for the first time since the Israeli-Syrian talks resumed last year, after a four year break. Assad is also accompanied by the foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, who has led the negotiations so far.

The talks broke off in January after Syria demanded that Israel commit itself to returning the entire Golan Heights before other issues could be discussed. But despite the official deadlock, there has been growing evidence that talks are continuing behind the scenes, and that a deal could be close.

Switzerland has emphasised that it is willing to host further summit meetings, and there are indications from the United States delegation that Clinton and Assad may be preparing for another meeting in Geneva, perhaps also attended by Israel and Lebanon, in a matter of weeks.

Berger said one of the main challenges was to increase confidence between Israel and Syria, so that both sides are prepared to compromise to secure a peace deal.

"They both have to compromise but they both have to believe that they are stronger and better positioned as a result of reaching a peace agreement," he said.

Several hours after the start of the talks under tight security in Geneva, there was no word on their progress. However, the Syrian delegation said Assad would stay another night at the Intercontinental Hotel, where the talks are taking place, instead of leaving Sunday evening as planned.

The US delegation also said Clinton would stay as long as necessary, indicating that the talks may continue longer than expected.

swissinfo with agencies

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