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Caroline Hawley in Egypt
"This has, for Madeleine Albright, been a successful visit - but the hard part comes now"
 real 28k

Thursday, 9 December, 1999, 17:59 GMT
Albright: 2000 'year of peace'

A Syrian flag flutters in a deserted town in the Golan Heights Confusion remains over the Golan Heights

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has ended her four-day Middle East tour by saying she hopes 2000 will be a year of peace for the region.

She was speaking in Egypt after Israel and Syria agreed to resume talks and she was given hopeful signs for Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

Middle East
The region was at a "historic crossroads", she said.

"With the leadership of Egypt and working together I believe we can seize the moment and help make the year 2000 a year of peace in the Middle East. Inshallah," she said.

Mrs Albright had flown to Egypt from Israel, where she helped broker the resumption of talks between Israel and Syria after a break of nearly four years.

She said she "got the sense" that Syria's and Israel's concerns could now be met through negotiations on four issues: withdrawal from Syrian territory, the character of the peace, security aspects for Israel, and a timeframe.

Palestinians reassured

She added that with negotiations resuming on the Syrian track, talks could soon resume between Israel and Syria's ally, Lebanon.

Albright: Sucess "if we can pull together"
And she also hoped that parallel Israel-Palestinian negotiations, which had become bogged down over Palestinian anger at Jewish settlements, would move forward.

"There is the same determination on the Israeli-Palestinian track with Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak committed to reaching a framework agreement on permanent status issues by 13 February," she said.

She said she was very encouraged by a commitment made by Mr Arafat to continue with good faith negotiations "without interruption".

And she stressed that the Palestinians would not be forgotten as Israel and Syria moved peace forward.

Albright told Arafat the Palestinians would not be sidelined
Israel and Syria expressed similar optimism over their talks, which they agreed to resume in Washington next week.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he thought the talks had a high chance of success.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad said he was determined to achieve a just and comprehensive peace.

Golan Heights issue

The talks are scheduled to begin in Washington with a meeting between Mr Barak and Farouk Shara, Syria's foreign minister, and then return to the Middle East.

Assad: "Determined" to find peace
However, there remains some confusion over the point at which the talks will start - in particular, over the key stumbling block of the Golan Heights.

Syria has maintained that talks would have to be based on an undertaking from Israel to withdraw from the land.

Israel, however, has denied that a pledge to withdraw from the territory, seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, was a condition for resuming talks.

Barak: "Optimistic" of success
But the BBC's correspondent in Jerusalem, Hilary Andersson, says there is a consensus in Israel that the authorities have privately agreed to give away most - if not all - of the Golan Heights.

As for other reaction, Lebanon said the resumption of Israel-Syria talks was a victory for the "firm stance" of Beirut and Damascus - although the news escalated the fighting in the south of the country.

It said it hoped that its own talks with Israel would restart soon.

Egypt said the agreement was "an important step" toward a long-awaited comprehensive settlement.

The European Union also said it was "optimistic" about the talks' success, and added that it was "ready to give all the necessary support for a final settlement."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulated Israel and Syria and said he looked forward to talks between Israel and Lebanon.

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See also:
09 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Analysis: Much at stake in talks
30 Jul 99 |  Middle East
Golan feels winds of change
23 Jul 99 |  Middle East
Profile: President Assad of Syria
09 Dec 99 |  Middle East
High hopes of Syrian peace
09 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Refugees warning for Arafat

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