Assad: I can do business with Peres

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President Hafez al-Assad of Syria said yesterday he is ready to move ahead quickly towards a peace settlement with Israel's acting Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr Assad told the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, he believed the "technical obstacles" to a deal were not insurmountable. Mr Rifkind was the first foreign emissary to meet the Syrian leader since the murder of Mr Rabin by a Jewish extremist last Saturday.

"He said it was Syria's desire to see a successful achievement of peace negotiations and he believed this could be achieved very quickly," Mr Rifkind told reporters.

The president's remarks were the first Syrian reaction after the assassination of the Israeli premier.

Mr Rifkind gave the Syrian leader a first-hand account of his talks with Israeli ministers at Mr Rabin's funeral in Jerusalem. Mr Assad apparently listened with close attention and repeated forcefully: "Yes, I am committed to peace."

This morning the Foreign Secretary will communicate his impressions of the two-hour meeting with President Assad diretly to Mr Peres in Israel. It is understood that the Syrian president told his visitors that Syria knew Mr Peres well and believed him to be serious in his commitment to peace.

Mr Assad also made it clear that the killing of Mr Rabin had caused the Syrians to reconsider their misconception that Israeli leaders did not face violent domestic opposition to a compromise peace deal.

Syria is the key hardline Arab state that has not yet made peace with Israel and a settlement would also include Lebanon.

But talks between senior Israeli and Syrian officers have stalled over the conditions and extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights.

The Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouq Al-Sharaa, said it was possible that Mr Rabin's assassination - which he has privately described as "tragic" - could contain a "silver lining" in the shape of an opportunity to speed up negotiations.

Mr Rifkind flew to Tel Aviv from Damascus last night and will meet the Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat in Gaza today.

Syria's resolve, page 18