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June 15, 2000  


DAMASCUS (AP) - World leaders brought to Syria by death took time to try revive the Mideast peace process, holding talks alongside funeral services for longtime leader Hafez Assad.


U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright emerged with a pledge from Bashar Assad, son and heir apparent of the president who died Saturday, to stick close to his father's line on peace talks with Israel. Little more could be expected of Bashar Assad, who at this stage must step carefully while shoring up his support base.


Hafez Assad committed himself to negotiations when he joined multilateral peace talks in Madrid in 1991. But, since then, little progress has been made on the Syria-Israel track.

Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat, left, speaks to Bashar Assad, son of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad at the presidential palace in Damascus Tuesday, June 13 2000. Arafat was in Damascus for the funeral of the late president, this is the first official visit to the Palestinian Leader since 1983 when Assad threw him out of Syria. (AP Photo)


The United States managed to revive Syria-Israeli talks last year, but they stalled in January. Syria wanted assurances that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights and turn over land extending down to the Sea of Galilee.


Israel refused to make such a pledge and insisted that the issues of security arrangements and normalization be spelled out first. Israel captured the strategic Golan plateau from Syria in the 1967



Syria's longing for the Golan was underscored even amid the mourning. Among the dignitaries was Hassan Nasrallah, whose Hezbollah guerrillas took credit for pushing Israeli troops from south Lebanon three weeks ago. When Nasrallah arrived at the palace where Assad lay in state, the Syria TV announcer said, "Thank God you saw the south (of Lebanon) liberated ... We will liberate our Golan, God willing, because ... the banner has been transferred to" Bashar Assad.


Bashar was meeting for the first time with Albright and several high-level visitors. He was familiar with other guests from trips in the region as his father's envoy that were part of the process of grooming him to take over.


French President Jacques Chirac had a warm greeting for Bashar Assad. The two first met last November when Bashar Assad traveled to France on a trip then seen as significant because it was his first outside the Arab world on an errand for his father.


During a stay in Damascus that lasted less than six hours, Albright also met Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa also met with al-Sharaa in Damascus Tuesday, saying their talks concentrated on the Mideast peace process and bilateral relations.


In addition to the diplomacy, Assad's funeral saw scenes reminiscent of feuding relatives' calling a truce because of a death in the family.


Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir and his rival Hassan Turabi met calmly at the funeral. El-Bashir has accused Turabi of plotting against him and stripped the former parliament speaker of his official posts.


More dramatically, PLO leader Yasser Arafat had a greeting kiss for Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, who in a speech less than a year ago castigated Arafat for making concessions to Israel, calling him "the son of 60,000 whores" and comparing him to a stripper.


Arafat's relationship with Syria, where many rival Palestinian factions are based, has been hostile for years because Assad viewed Arafat as failing to be steadfast against Israel. But with the possibility of a final Palestinian-Israeli deal being struck, many regional equations are being rethought.


In a sign of the changes, Arafat stopped at a Damascus hotel on the way to the palace for a brief meeting with Nayef Hawatmeh, head of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The DFLP was one of the staunchest opponents of reconciliation with Israel in the 1970s, but recently renounced violence in favor of negotiations.


Arafat has worked hard to draw in the DFLP and other Damascus groups to enlarge his base of support ahead of a final peace treaty with Israel. In exchange, Arafat may have to give others a voice in the negotiations.


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