Clinton agrees to meet Assad

PRESIDENT Hafez al-Assad of Syria has extracted a significant diplomatic concession from the United States with the announcement that he and President Bill Clinton will meet in Geneva in January.

Announcing the move, and the resumption of peace talks between Syria and Israel in Washington in January, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said in Damascus that the aim was to promote the Middle East peace process. He said the summit would 'help to put in place a vital cornerstone in our efforts to build a comprehensive, just and lasting peace'.

The initiative was welcomed in Israel, where a spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said after discussions with Mr Christopher: 'We can only be pleased with such a meeting to push forward the peace process.'

Syria has vested interests in improving relations with the US, following the collapse of its former Soviet superpower backer. It is under US economic sanctions, having been branded a sponsor of terrorism, and has tried to mend fences by relaxing restrictions on the exodus of its tiny remaining Jewish population, and by offering help in finding Israeli soldiers missing in action in Lebanon.

In terms of the peace talks, the cautious Mr Assad is prepared to wait to see how the Palestinian-Israeli accord unfolds - or unravels. Syria has offered Israel peace in exchange for withdrawal from the Golan, occupied in 1967.

Meanwhile, Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has raised hopes that Israel and the Palestinians might be able to adhere to their timetable and start implementing their accord on Palestinian self-rule on Monday.

'The date of 13 December should be the beginning of the implementation of the accord over a four-month period,' Mr Peres told a news conference after talks with the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat.

'We hope to be able to begin on time and I am sure we will be able to meet the four-month deadline (in April),' Mr Peres said.

Mr Peres has often confused wishful thinking with reality. But it was his vision and resilience in the face of many setbacks which led to the signing of the accord in the first place.

Yesterday's meeting was his first with Mr Arafat since the historic signing ceremony in Washington on 13 September. They met in Granada, the former Moorish capital of Andalucia.

It was an apt venue. Last year, Muslims and Jews shared a common quincentenary - of their final expulsion from newly ascendant Catholic Spain.

Mr Arafat's chief political adviser said yesterday that the PLO chairman and the Israeli Prime Minister would meet in Cairo on Sunday to try to remove obstacles delaying the handover. In Jerusalem, Mr Rabin's spokesman said: 'There is no decision yet.'

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, police said they had arrested two Jewish settlers suspected of killing a Palestinian farmer while he wastilling his land. One of the suspects was aged 16.