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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 06:29 GMT
Powell due to visit North Africa
By Jon Leyne
BBC State Department correspondent

US Secretary of State Colin Powell will begin a visit to North Africa on Tuesday to encourage leaders to co-operate in the war on terror.

He will be making brief stops in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

It comes amid new moves for peace between Israel and its neighbours, but commentators say Mr Powell is pointedly avoiding the Middle East.

The US has also rejected a call from the Syrian president to help revive peace talks between Syria and Israel.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell

The aim of Mr Powell's trip, according to State Department officials, is to encourage America's allies in the region to work with them in the war on terror and to encourage moves towards democracy.

But Mr Powell is also sending another equally clear message - the United States is not prepared yet to commit itself to another round of peace-making between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Powell has offered encouragement to the peace activists involved in several current initiatives, including the unofficial Geneva Accord which described the outlines of a possible future peace deal.

Syria snubbed

But the State Department has rebuffed a call from the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, to help restart talks between Syria and Israel.

In an interview with the New York Times, President Assad spoke bluntly about America's plans for the Middle East.

"You cannot keep talking about this vision, you have to put a mechanism in order to achieve that vision, " he said.

And that, he explained, meant Washington using its influence to revive peace talks between Syria and the Israelis.

The response from the US State Department was equally blunt. The spokesman, Richard Boucher, said the administration found it hard to understand how Syria could talk peace at a time when it continued to support groups violently opposed to the peace process.

And Mr Boucher pointed out that until recently the Syrians had stressed the need for progress on the Palestinian issue before re-engaging in negotiations themselves.

Once again the Bush administration is demonstrating how reluctant it is to spend time, energy and political capital on resolving the conflict between Israel and its neighbours.

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