Syria tells Blair: Stop bombing civilians

War on Terrorism: Diplomacy
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's vision of a new world order in response to the events of 11 September came up against cold political reality yesterday when Syria's President condemned the military strikes on Afghanistan and hailed Palestinian terrorists as freedom fighters.

In a diplomatic embarrassment for the Prime Minister, President Bashar Assad delivered a public rebuff and the first serious setback to Mr Blair's round of shuttle diplomacy, declaring that the "hundreds" of civilian casualties caused by the bombing in Afghanistan were intolerable.

And in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, Mr Blair's mission suffered a further blow when the Saudi Arabian government failed to pledge support for the US military campaign.

Earlier in the day, with Mr Blair standing uneasily alongside him, President Assad said: "We cannot accept what we see on the screen every day; hundreds of innocent civilians dying."

The Syrian President also compared the "liberation struggle" of militant Palestinian groups to General De Gaulle's efforts to free France from the Nazis in the Second World War.

His remarks will ensure that Mr Blair will face an even frostier reception when he flies to Jerusalem today in a fresh attempt to restart the stalled Middle East peace process.

Mr Blair is to meet Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, after a whirlwind tour of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the past 24 hours.

Hours before Mr Blair arrived in Damascus ­ the first visit by a British Prime Minister ­ the Taliban claimed America had bombed an Afghan Red Crescent Hospital in Kandahar overnight, killing up to 15 civilians. The Taliban claimed 1,500 civilians had died since the start of the air strikes.

Syria is still on the US blacklist of nations accused of sponsoring terrorism and Mr Blair arrived with a plea for Mr Assad to use his influence to restrain groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which killed the Israeli Tourism Minister, Rehavam Zeevi, two weeks ago.

Speaking after their 90-minute meeting, Mr Blair said that "violence from whatever quarter, in whatever form" had to stop to create space for peace negotiations in the Middle East.

But President Assad defiantly suggested that groups such as the PFLP were fighting a war against Israeli terrorism. "Resisting occupation is an international right nobody can deny and, therefore, we have many organisations, many people in support of liberation and resistance fighters who seek to liberate their lands.

"An act of resistance is very different from an act of terrorism. In France, one of the most important personalities was President de Gaulle, who fought for the liberation of French land. Can you accuse President de Gaulle of being a terrorist? No way."

The Syrian President also suggested America was wrong to focus solely on Osama bin Laden. "Terrorism works as a network. It doesn't have a certain person as its head."

He said the present international consensus was a "golden opportunity" for the West to launch genuine action against all forms of terrorism, including Israeli terrorism. He also made it clear that Syria had not given its support for a "war" on Afghanistan. "We condemn terrorism, but we did not say we support an international coalition for war."

Mr Blair's entourage said Syria was more conciliatory in private. "I think there's a far greater understanding than many believe," Mr Blair said after appearing at the bruising press conference.

Mr Blair then flew to Riyadh to meet King Fahd where the Prime Minister appeared to confirm reports in The Independent yesterday that the Saudis had agreed to allow the use of an American air base to co-ordinate attacks.

After a meeting with members of the Saudi parliament and talks with Crown Prince Abdullah, Mr Blair's spokesman conceded there had been no pledges of support for the Allied action. But he said the trip had been "very, very useful" and dispelled suggestions that the regime had snubbed Mr Blair after his trip to Oman three weeks ago. Mr Blair arrived in Amman, the capital of Jordan last night.

Meanwhile, in some of the heaviest pounding yet, planes carpet-bombed Taliban targets north of Kabul, and close to the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The munitions were dropped by B-52s. Witnesses saw bombs causing up to 100 explosions.

In New York, a fourth person died of anthrax, without any apparent connection to the sources that linked other cases.