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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK
Sharon 'ready for Syria talks'
Ariel Sharon
Sharon: Waiting for US pressure on Syria to bear fruit

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he is ready for unconditional negotiations with Syria, three years after talks broke down over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Asked if he was ready for peace talks with Syria, Mr Sharon told Israeli public television: "I support establishing talks with all Arab countries without preconditions".

But the BBC's Nick Thorpe in Jerusalem says that while Syria wants to restart talks from the point where they broke down - on the issue of the Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - Israel wants to start them from scratch.

"The Syrians will of course have demands on us and we will have for sure demands on them. We are ready to sit and discuss these issues," Mr Sharon said.

Syria has said peace can only be achieved if Israel withdraws from land claimed by the Arabs and captured in 1967 and guarantees the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

US peace initiative

US Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks in Syria last week and he is due to arrive in Israel on Saturday, in an effort to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Mr Sharon also expressed his willingness to hold talks with the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas - more commonly known as Abu Mazen.

"I see him as a partner," Mr Sharon said.

But he rejected the suggestion that Israel should halt operations in the Palestinian territories in order to give the new government a chance to itself rein in militants.

The Palestinian leadership has accepted the US-sponsored "roadmap" - a new framework for achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal - but Mr Sharon has made clear he has objections.

Earlier on Thursday, Iyad al-Bayk, a member of the militant group Hamas, was killed in an Israeli rocket strike on his car in Gaza - an attack Mr Sharon said he had personally ordered.

Israeli soldiers also shot dead a Palestinian man near Khan Younis on Thursday as he approached a checkpoint near a Jewish settlement, and a Palestinian man with a donkey was killed by Israeli troops just outside the West Bank city of Nablus.

After nightfall, a car laden with explosives blew up near an Israeli tank, killing the Palestinian inside but inflicting no Israeli casualties.

Powell pressure

Referring to peace talks with Syria, Mr Sharon said he wanted to wait "a number of weeks to avoid interfering with American pressure on Syria or Lebanon to take steps necessary for the security of Israel".

In Damascus the US secretary of state made it clear there was a "new strategic situation" following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the publication of the "roadmap".

Mr Powell called on Syria to end its support for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

The US also wants Syria to crack down on the activities of anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus.

Mr Powell said there were opportunities to resolve long-standing issues - such as Syrian troops in Lebanon and Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights - but all sides had to take action.

Syria has responded coolly to US demands, saying Washington should be putting pressure on Israel.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Matt Prodger
"Mr Sharon wants to start negotiations from scratch"



SEE ALSO:
Powell warns Syria of 'consequences'
05 May 03  |  Middle East
Syria cool towards Powell
04 May 03  |  Middle East
Analysis: Washington's demands on Syria
03 May 03  |  Middle East
Q&A: The US and Syria
03 May 03  |  Middle East
Bashar stands firm on Golan
17 Jul 00  |  Middle East


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