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Geneva hosts Clinton-Assad summit

President Clinton and the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, have begun a crucial summit in Geneva to discuss the Middle East peace process, amid indications that an Israeli-Syrian deal may be near.

This content was published on March 24, 2000 - 14:29

President Clinton and the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, have begun a crucial summit in Geneva to discuss the Middle East peace process, amid indications that an Israeli-Syrian deal may be near.

The meeting is taking place under tight security at Geneva's Intercontinental hotel. The delegations have left open how long the talks will last.

Unconfirmed reports say Clinton may announce the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks, which have been stalled since January over the arrangements for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and other issues.

Nonetheless, the American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, said after talks with her Swiss counterpart, Joseph Deiss, on Thursday that she would not make any predictions about the outcome of the summit.

Despite playing down expectations, there are widespread rumours a peace deal may be near. A statement by Deiss after the meeting that Switzerland would be prepared to host further meetings added to speculation that the Clinton-Assad talks will pave the way for a further summit in Geneva which would include Israel and Lebanon.

Arab sources have said such a meeting could be held within the next two months in Geneva. Unconfirmed reports say an Israeli-Syrian peace deal is close to completion, despite the lack of formal negotiations in public.

A flurry of statements by Middle East leaders in the past week has also added to the speculation. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt said he expected an agreement to be in place this year. The Israeli foreign minister, Yossi Beilin, echoed that same sentiment during a visit to Switzerland

The main sticking point between Israel and Syria has been over the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. The issues of where the frontier will be drawn, Israel's security concerns and the crucial question of water rights have been central to the negotiations.

Analysts say the US is likely to offer Syria guarantees that Israel will pull back to the pre-1967 war frontier. As part of a global settlement, the frontier between Israel and Lebanon, dating from 1923 under the British-French mandate, would be restored.

There is also reported to be discussion whether an international force would patrol the part of southern Lebanon which Israel occupies, once it completes its military withdrawal scheduled for July.

The meeting between Clinton and Assad is their first direct encounter since they held talks in Geneva in 1994.

swissinfo with agencies





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