Syria says Golan Heights is on Annapolis agenda

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DAMASCUS, Nov 23 (Reuters) The United States has agreed to put the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on the Annapolis talks agenda but Syria will await confirmation before deciding whether to go, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said today.

Moualem said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal at an Arab diplomatic meeting in Cairo with confirmation that the Golan will be discussed at the Nov. 27 conference, which aims to restart talks on Palestinian statehood.

''Syria will wait until it receives the agenda of the conference. President Bashar al-Assad will then decide whether to attend or not, and at what level,'' Moualem told Syrian television from Cairo.

There was no immediate comment from Washington. Diplomats in the Syrian capital said Moualem's announcement signalled that Syria was going to attend.

''They are clearly going to Annapolis. The delay in publicly saying yes is typical, but Syria knows that it cannot afford except to attend,'' one European diplomat said.

''Syria is not going to miss an opportunity to state the case for regaining the Golan at such a huge meeting, regardless of the semantics of the schedule,'' an Arab diplomat said.

The Damascus government has repeatedly said it will only attend the US-hosted conference if the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, are on the agenda.

Moualem was in Cairo for a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to prepare a common strategy for the Annapolis conference.

Direct peace talks between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over the scope of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

Pro-US Arab governments have been putting pressure on Syria to attend the November 27 conference in Annapolis, Maryland, even if the Golan is not explicitly on the agenda. Diplomats say there will be a session about comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that addresses the Golan.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, David Welch, said on Tuesday the Syrians were entitled to ''express their views and their national interests'' at the conference.

''We think it (Annapolis) represents an opportunity for all those who would like to make meaningful steps toward peace to come and represent their views,'' he said, when asked whether Syria could raise the issue of the Golan Heights at Annapolis.

''We won't turn off the microphone,'' said Welch.

Reuters TB VP0125

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