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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 21:42 GMT
Blair struggles to win Arab backing
Tony Blair and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah
Blair is trying to shore up Muslim support
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing an uphill battle to bring two leading Arab nations into the Western fold in the war against terrorism.

He has been received politely in Syria and Saudi Arabia, but both countries have deep reservations about the US-led military campaign against Osama Bin Laden, the Islamic militant suspected of masterminding last month's terror attacks on the United States.

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

Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad publicly rejected what seems to have been a private attempt by Mr Blair have him to rein in anti-Israeli militants based in Damascus.

And while the Saudi royal family may share Western concerns about Bin Laden - who was born in the kingdom but has been stripped of citizenship - many Saudi citizens sympathise with him.

The BBC's Andrew Marr, travelling with Mr Blair, says Wednesday was an "intensely difficult and at times embarrassing day of shuttle diplomacy".

The prime minister held talks and a tense news conference with Mr Assad in the morning before continuing to Riyadh for meetings with the Saudi king and crown prince.

Mr Blair has now arrived in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where he will meet King Abdullah.

In other developments:

  • The United States dismisses a Taleban claim that it has captured up to 40 US servicemen in Afghanistan
  • A 61-year-old woman in New York becomes the fourth US citizen to die of anthrax
  • The US attorney general announces a raft of measures aimed at barring terrorist suspects from entering the US
  • 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
  • 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 11 September suicide hijack attacks

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

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
31 Oct: Riyadh
Damascus is the headquarters of a number of militant groups, including 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.

While Mr Assad welcomed what he called Mr Blair's respect for Islam, he criticised 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.

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Middle East states: Where they stand

Mr Assad also took issue with the definition of terrorism, refusing to class Palestinian militant groups as terrorists.

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

"Resisting occupation is an international right. An act of resistance is different from an act of terrorism," he said.

Mr Blair, like US President George W Bush, is keen to calm tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in order to discourage Arab sympathy for anti-western militants.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Assad: Differentiates between terrorism and resistance
Mr Blair said he did not feel snubbed or embarrassed by Mr Assad's fierce denunciation of western military action in Afghanistan or his insistence that the militant groups based in Damascus were "freedom fighters" not terrorists.

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.

Mr Blair's visit to the Middle East comes as the US steps up its military campaign, carrying out its heaviest raids yet on the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar.

The BBC's Andrew Marr
"Holding Arab opinion together while the bombing continues is fantastically difficult"
The BBC's Brian Hanrahan
"He says the only way to get dialogue is if someone starts the talking"
Political analyst Yahya Al-Alaridi
"There has to be a distinction between terrorism and somebody resisting occupation"
See also:

31 Oct 01 | Middle East
Blair's road to Damascus
31 Oct 01 | Middle East
Blair's Mid-East mission
31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Straw visits Russia to 'build trust'
30 Oct 01 | Americas
CIA seeks rogue state co-operation
26 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: US unease over Israeli action
31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Syria trip 'opens bridge for dialogue'
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
War on terror: Syria's mixed reaction
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
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