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Summit shows 'solidarity' with Mid-East peace

The US wants next Wednesday's hastily arranged Middle East summit to produce "concrete measures" to counter terrorism and promote security across the region.

The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said yesterday the conference, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh on the Red Sea, would be co- chaired by President Bill Clinton and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak. Among those attending will be King Hussein of Jordan, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and the leaders or senior representatives of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and of the European Union - among them Jacques Chirac, the French President.

First suggested by Israel and Jordan in the wake of the recent suicide bombings in Israel, the idea of a conference was instantly seized upon by Washington, where Mr Christopher and senior aides have worked night and day this week to iron out the details. The aim, said the Secretary of State, was to create a "firebreak against the march of events in the Middle East". Washington was standing "shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel and other peace-makers in the region," to stop terrorism destroying the peace process. "Concrete steps," he predicted, would come out of the meeting.

But it was not clear whether Syria, which has given at least moral support to Hamas and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups, had even been invited to Sharm-el-Sheikh. Though Syrian officials yesterday again denied the country was a haven for terrorists, Damascus has yet to issue a direct condemnation of the bombings, and last week Israel broke off bilateral discussions here on a separate peace with Syria.

Experts said that with Syria absent, the chances of major practical moves against the terrorists were small, and unlikely to go much beyond the logistical help already sent to Israel by the US, and its pressure on neighbouring states to redouble their efforts to stamp out Hamas and other extremist groups.

But however slender the tangible results, the summit's symbolic importance is huge, as a show of support for the peace process, a ringing gesture of solidarity with Israel from former Arab foes, and a demonstration to Hamas that the terrorist group is isolated in the region.

The next day, as Mr Christopher begins a longer Middle East tour of his own, Mr Clinton will travel to Israel to underline his own sympathy with the horror, grief and outrage of the Jewish state at the four bombings in the last two weeks, which have claimed 61 lives.

White House officials hope too that the physical presence of a US President in Israel will give a boost to the staggering Labour government of Shimon Peres, facing possible defeat in May's general election at the hands of Binyamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party will have little truck with the peace process.

There are also domestic imperatives for Mr Clinton. With the collapse of the IRA ceasefire, and now the bombings in Israel, two peace-making efforts that were among his biggest foreign policy achievements are tottering - just as the Presidential campaign heats up.

n Beirut - Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hizbollah yesterday slammed the summit, Reuter reports. Hizbollah said the meeting would be "a practice of arrogant American hegemony over our region and a consecration of Israeli control over it". The organisation added that its guerrilla war to oust Israeli forces from south Lebanon and suicide attacks by Palestinian groups in Israel were justified as they "target an enemy occupying the homeland".