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Syria wants dialogue with US on Lebanon crisis

Written by: Staff

DAMASCUS, July 23 (Reuters) Syria is willing to engage in dialogue with the United States to solve the confrontation between Hizbollah and Israel, Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad said today.

''Syria is ready for dialogue with the United States based on respect and mutual interests,'' he told Reuters in an interview.

Mekdad, an influential player in Syrian foreign policy, said Syria could ''facilitate communication'' to help end the crisis but that Hizbollah made its own decisions.

US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said it was ''hard to see'' benefits from a Syrian-American dialogue and repeated US calls for Syria to pressure Hizbollah to release two Israeli soldiers and stop targeting Israel with rockets.

Hizbollah fighters captured the two soldiers in a cross border operation on July 12, sparking Israeli reprisals that have killed around 365 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians.

Diplomats said Syria was unlikely to pressure Hizbollah to release the soldiers and disarm, as demanded by Western powers and a UN resolution, unless Damascus is guaranteed a role in any settlement that could help it regain its own occupied land.

Mekdad said the immediate solution to the conflict lies in a ceasefire brokered by international powers to be followed by diplomacy to address Hizbollah's demands, including a prisoner exchange and the return of Shebaa Farms.

''Israel has held some of these people in captivity for around 40 years. Releasing them fulfils a requirement of international law,'' he said.

OCCUPIED LAND A Baath Party member close to the ruling inner circle said Syria considered the Israeli offensive on Lebanon ''an attempt to reshape the politics of the West Asia''.

The root of the crisis, Mekdad said, was Israel's occupation of Arab land, including Shebaa Farms, an area near the Golan Heights still under Israeli control after Israel pulled out of south Lebanon in 2000.

Lebanon and Syria say Shebaa Farms is Lebanese. The United Nations considers it Syrian land occupied by Israel in 1967.

''The basis must be found for a just and comprehensive peace and the return of the occupied land in Golan, Palestine and south Lebanon,'' Mekdad said.

''America and Israel are mistaken to think that destroying Lebanon will bring peace. What Israel is doing with US involvement will only produce more violence and hatred.'' Asked if Syria could see Hizbollah disarmed at one point, Mekdad said this was only possible with a peace deal that gives back Arab territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

''We do not decide for Hizbollah, but want a process for all the people of the region to live with dignity,'' he said.

Syria, a main backer of Hizbollah, has not been invited to an emergency meeting on the crisis in Rome next week, chaired by The United States and Italy.

The Baathist government's ties with the West deteriorated after last year's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.


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