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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 11:41 GMT
Blair welcomes Syrian support
Tony Blair and Bashar al-Assad
Blair is trying to consolidate Muslim support
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has welcomed Syria's condemnation of the 11 September attacks on the United States, reiterating that terrorism - not Islam - is the target of the US-led campaign.

Mr Blair was in Damascus for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, in the first such visit to Syria by a British leader for more than 30 years. He has arrived in Saudi Arabia.


We cannot accept what we see every day on our television screens, whereby hundreds of innocent civilians are dying

President Assad
At a news conference after the talks, President Assad made clear the importance of tackling the underlying causes of tensions in the world so as to, as he put it, pull the rug from under the terrorists.

But the two leaders clearly had differences of opinion, with the Syrian leader criticising the war in Afghanistan.

"We cannot accept what we see every day on our television screens, whereby hundreds of innocent civilians are dying," Mr Assad said.

And he also took issue with the definition of terrorism, refusing to class Palestinian militant groups with offices in Syria as terrorists.

"We have made distinctions between terrorism and resistance, and insisted on the distinction between Islam and terrorism," Mr Assad said.

"The war against terrorism must be settled first by a group definition of this phenomenon, by international cooperation, by solving the problem at its roots," he added.

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Middle East states: Where they stand

In other developments:

  • A major branch of the US postal workers' union demands the closure of mail centres in Florida to protect workers who they say are being put at risk
  • The US tightens security around major nuclear facilities following a new warning about the threat of further terrorist attacks
  • US Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge confirms that Osama Bin Laden's network is the likely source of an "imminent" terrorist attack
  • Two British airlines, British Airways and Virgin, are to install armour-plated doors to prevent unauthorised access to cockpits on their planes in the wake of the suicide hijack attacks
  • Ahmad Ziah Masood, a senior official for the Afghan opposition Northern Alliance is quoted as saying a new offensive is being planned on Taleban front lines north of the capital Kabul
  • The head of the United Nations refugee agency, Ruud Lubbers, calls on the US and the UK not to allow Afghan civilians to become the victims of the conflict

Sovereignty

Mr Blair said both Israel and the Palestinians had a right to a secure state of their own.

"Whatever the difference of perspective, we both understand the importance of re-starting the Middle East peace process...," he said.

The visit marked the start of a new diplomatic mission to shore up support for the campaign against terror.

Mr Blair is taking a high profile role in efforts to consolidate the support of Muslim and Arab countries.

Blair's diplomatic whirlwind
19 Sep: Berlin
20 Sep: Paris
20 Sep: New York
20 Sep: Washington
21 Sep: Brussels
22 Sep: London
4 Oct: Moscow
5 Oct: Islamabad
6 Oct: Delhi
9 Oct: Geneva
10 Oct: Oman
11 Oct: Cairo
31 Oct: Damascus
The visit comes as the US steps up its military campaign, carrying out its heaviest raids yet on the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar.

The French news agency AFP reported that 13 civilians had been killed in an attack on a medical dispensary in the city.

Heavy raids have also been reported against the front line to the north of Kabul - including a Taleban headquarters - and in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld has meanwhile confirmed that a small number of American ground forces are inside Afghanistan, directing air strikes against Taleban positions.

He said the bombing was more effective as a result.

Terrorist links

Syria is classed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States.

PFLP fighter
Damascus is the headquarters of the PFLP
Damascus is the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which says it killed an Israeli cabinet minister two weeks ago in retaliation for the killing of its own leader.

British officials have declined to say what form of security co-operation the UK was seeking, but said Mr Blair wanted to engage in a dialogue with Syria on how to combat terrorism.

Mr Blair is expected to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials on Thursday, with the aim of trying to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inflaming Arab and Muslim opinion further and undermining the anti-terrorism coalition.

Britain would also like to encourage the revival of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria itself.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"The New York attack has changed attitudes around the world"
The BBC's defence correspondent Paul Adams
"Syria is vital"
Political analyst Yahya Al-Alaridi
"There has to be a distinction between terrorism and somebody resisting occupation"
See also:

30 Oct 01 | Americas
CIA seeks rogue state co-operation
30 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israel makes fresh Gaza incursion
26 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: US unease over Israeli action
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
War on terror: Syria's mixed reaction
31 Oct 01 | South Asia
Allies pound Taleban stronghold
31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Straw visits Russia to 'build trust'
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
31 Oct 01 | Middle East
Blair's road to Damascus
31 Oct 01 | Middle East
Blair's Mid-East mission
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