Progress `hard going' at Middle East talks

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TALKS IN Washington between Israeli and Syrian officials were set to end yesterday on schedule, with provisional agreement on an outline timetable for formal negotiations on the status of the disputed Golan Heights and other bilateral disputes.

But the first day of the two-day session was said to have been "hard going", and there was no guarantee yesterdaymorning when the talks resumed that the two principal negotiators, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Syrian Foreign minister, Farouq Sharaa, would even meet face to face, let alone consent to a public handshake. Persuading the two officials to come to Washington at all was a diplomatic achievement for President Clinton. But the talks started frostily, when Mr Sharaa used his speech at the opening ceremony in the White House rose garden to list Syria's grievances against Israel and question its good faith.

Mr Barak, meanwhile, faced mounting opposition at home to any handover of the Golan Heights that bore disturbing similarities to the discontent that preceded the assassination of his predecessor but two, Itzhak Rabin. No details were expected to emerge from the Washington talks until they were concluded.