US aims to invite Syria to peace meeting

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 24 (Reuters) The United States signaled it would invite Syria and other Arab states to a West Asia peace conference but suggested they must renounce violence and genuinely seek an end to the conflict.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she viewed members of an Arab League panel -- comprised of the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt -- as ''natural invitees'' to the US-hosted conference.

Only the last two have full relations with Israel, while Syria is deeply estranged from the Jewish state and is accused of providing arms and money to Palestinian groups that oppose peace with Israel.

Speaking after a meeting of the Quartet of West Asia peace mediators, which urged Israel to keep power and fuel flowing to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Rice suggested that attending the US conference, expected to be held in the Washington area in November, came with some strings.

''Coming to this meeting also brings with it certain responsibilities,'' Rice told reporters at a news conference after the meeting of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

''We hope that those who come are really committed to helping the Israelis and the Palestinians find a way through. And that means renouncing violence, it means working for a peaceful solution,'' she added.

The United States wants other Arab states to take part in the conference as a way to build support for a broader peace between Israel and its neighbors.

ATTENDANCE UNCERTAIN Rice would not say unequivocally that invitations would be extended to Syria, Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Arab League panel created to follow up on the group's 2002 peace plan. A senior US official who asked not to be named told reporters, however, that the United States would do so.

That plan, initially floated by Saudi Arabia, called on Israel to withdraw from all Arab land occupied in the 1967 West Asia war, reach an ''agreed, just'' solution for Palestinian refugees, and accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Following a dinner between the Quartet and Arab ministers, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Riyadh had not yet decided whether it would accept any invitation.

''We've got some answers but we still have some questions which we hope to be answered,'' he told reporters. Asked specifically if his country would attend the conference, he said: ''We still need some more answers.'' Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he expected ''the majority'' of Arab invitees to attend.

Rice told the news conference the meeting would be ''substantive and serious'' and would deal with the core issues of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem and borders.

There has been deep skepticism among Arab diplomats about the US effort this year to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace after six years of what critics regard as relative neglect.

There is also little detail about the conference that the United States is expected to host, including exactly when and where it would be held and who would be invited.

In a statement after its meeting, the Quartet said it hoped by the end of the year to find a way to resume direct funding to the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

It called on Israel to maintain ''essential services'' to Gaza, the coastal strip ruled by Hamas, after Israel declared the area an ''enemy entity'' and said it would reduce fuel and power supplies in response to rocket attacks by Palestinians.


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