Page last updated at 20:29 GMT, Saturday, 26 April 2008 21:29 UK

Israel focus for Erdogan in Syria

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad
Mr Erdogan says Turkey has a role to play as mediator

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, as part of efforts to secure a peace deal between Syria and Israel.

Mr Erdogan said both nations had sought Turkey's help on the issue.

Mediation would begin at a low level and, if successful, progress to higher-level officials, he said.

On Thursday Syria said Israel had indicated it would be prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declined to comment on the reports, but Mr Olmert has said that he is interested in peace in Syria.

Israel and Syria remain technically at war, although both sides have recently spoken of their desire for peace.

Israeli troops in the Golan observe Syria (archive)
Israel says it is interested in peace with Syria

The Syrian government has insisted that peace talks can be resumed only on the basis of Israel returning the Golan Heights, which it seized in 1967.

Israeli authorities, for their part, have demanded that Syria abandon its support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.

The last peace talks between the two countries broke down in 2000.

"As Turkey, we will make whatever efforts we can on this issue," Mr Erdogan told a news conference on his return to Turkey.

"In this respect, there is a request from Syria and in the same way a request from Israel."

The meeting "focused on ways to activate a just and comprehensive peace", Syrian state media reported.

'Positive contribution'

The original purpose of Mr Erdogan's visit was to open the first Syrian-Turkish economic forum.

Detailed Golan map

But correspondents say it gained added significance after reports of the Israeli offer.

"The trust Turkey has makes it almost obligatory to take on a mediating role," Reuters news agency quoted Mr Erdogan as saying ahead of the visit.

"The peace diplomacy we carry out will have a positive contribution ... whether in Iraq, between Syria and Israel or between Israel and Palestine."

In June 2007, Israel's deputy prime minister confirmed his government had sent secret messages to Syria about the possibility of resuming peace negotiations through third-parties, one of whom was widely believed to be Turkey.

But the Syrian reports have sparked outrage in the Israeli parliament, with several MPs saying they would seek to accelerate the passage of a bill requiring any withdrawal from the Golan to be dependent on a referendum.

Correspondents say returning the Golan to Syria is not a popular concept in Israel, and the details of a possible Israeli withdrawal have bedevilled past negotiations between the two countries.

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