Mid-East talks 'back on track': Warren Christopher heads for Damascus again as he establishes dialogue between the Syrian and Israeli leaders

THE US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, is to visit Damascus today for the second time during his current Middle East tour, raising hopes that his 'shuttling' may have established a constructive dialogue between President Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian President, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister. A State Department spokesman, Mike McCurry, said yesterday that Mr Christopher was 'beginning to help Assad and Rabin exchange views'.

The return trip to Damascus, after lengthy talks in Jerusalem with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as talks in Amman, Cairo and Beirut, is the most positive sign yet to emerge from America's latest round of Middle East diplomacy, aimed at bringing all sides back to the negotiating table after Israel's ferocious bombardment of Lebanon last week.

Mr Rabin said yesterday that Mr Christopher had brought 'certain good news' with him after his first round of talks with Mr Assad. But he did not specify what this was, adding: 'It's only the beginning. We still have a long way to go.' Mr Christopher said he had brought 'significant' - but not necessarily new - information back to Israel from Damascus. He said that the peace process 'has been salvaged and is back on track'.

The renewed emphasis on the Syrian side of the peace talks was expected after the US-brokered ceasefire ended Israel's onslaught on Lebanon, which was aimed at curbing the Islamic militants of Hizbollah. Syria's influence over Hizbollah is believed to have helped achieve a ceasefire. Mr Christopher's current discussions with Mr Assad centre on the situation in south Lebanon, and how a resolution there can be linked to a deal over the future of the Golan Heights, which Syria says should be returned by Israel in its entirety.

Demonstrating the fragility of the ceasefire, guerrillas fired four Katyusha rockets at Israel's 'security zone' in south Lebanon yesterday for the first time since the ending of the bombardment. The ceasefire agreement on Saturday included 'understandings' that Hizbollah guerrillas would not fire rockets at northern Israel but it did not cover attacks on the 'security zone'.

But in another positive development for the peace talks yesterday, state-run Israel Radio said that an Israeli cabinet minister, Yossi Sarid, a member of the left-wing Meretz party, which is part of the Israeli coalition, had met a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organisation for secret talks in Cairo, with the approval of Mr Rabin.

Mr Rabin's office neither confirmed nor denied the report. Such a meeting would constitute the most significant step yet taken by the Israeli government towards direct talks with the PLO. Although the PLO decides the policy of the Palestinian peace team it is formally barred from the negotiating table because official Israeli policy still bans government contacts with the organisation. Palestinian leaders have been pressing for direct talks, which they say would speed up progress in the peace talks.

The official who met Mr Sarid, Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, did not, however, have any progress to report. He said that a US-proposed 'statement of principles' - drawn up with a large measure of Israeli agreement and intended to end the logjam in the Palestinian talks - was to be returned by the Palestinians to Mr Christopher '80 per cent rewritten'.

Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, said last night that if the talks were to make real progress Israel must start to talk directly with its 'real interlocutors' - the PLO.

(Photograph omitted)