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The BBC's Richard Lister reports
"Officials here say there is no chance of a deal by the end of this round of talks"
 real 28k

Thursday, 6 January, 2000, 05:16 GMT
Call for progress in Mid-East talks

The first checkpoint on Mount Hermon in the disputed Golan Heights

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has intervened in the peace talks between Syria and Israel, in an attempt to speed up the peace process.

Middle East
The talks, which started on Monday in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, got into substantive discussions on Wednesday, after overcoming procedural problems.

US State Department spokesman, James Rubin, described the prevailing mood in the talks as "not warm".

"It's moving very slowly, and the Americans are trying to bridge large gaps", Mr Rubin said.

We have not expanded in any substantial way the areas of agreement at this stage
State Department spokesman James Rubin
He said Syrian and Israeli officials only engage in direct contacts when US officials are present.

In hour-long meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and then with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Mrs Albright had discussed "how we get from the stage of chugging along to a fast track", according to Mr Rubin.

The Secretary of State is ready to call President Clinton back to the talks in order to help them gather speed.

Bridging gaps

Committees of experts from both countries and the United States, which is playing the role of facilitator, on Wednesday started the challenging job of narrowing the gaps that have divided the Middle East enemies for decades.

The three leaders met during talks earlier this week
Full talks only got underway on the third day of meetings when officials ironed out their procedural differences, with the help of President Clinton.

The talks had been stalled by disagreements between the Syrians and Israelis over which issues should be discussed first.

The committees are meeting to look at all agenda items scheduled for this week - the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, the security arrangements to be offered to Israel in return, access to water resources, and the process of establishing a normal bilateral relationship.

Two committees - on security arrangements after an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and on normalising relations between Israel and Syria - met for the first time on Wednesday but two other committees have not been able to convene.

Key conditions for Israeli-Syrian peace deal
Israeli withdrawal from the Golan
Syrian security guarantees
Israeli access to water supplies
Israeli-Lebanese peace accord
Even in the committees that did meet, Mr Rubin could not report any progress.

"We have not expanded in any substantial way the areas of agreement at this stage," he said.

The Syrians are insisting that Israel commit itself to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights before talks on other issues proceed.

But the Israelis want to focus on what security guarantees Syria would give them in return for the Golan.

The BBC's Richard Lister in Washington says the Clinton administration is anxious to prevent the two sides from getting bogged down in preliminary issues while so much remains to be done.

The talks in Shepherdstown follow a ground-breaking meeting in Washington last month, which ended a four-year deadlock in the peace process and saw the highest-level contact between the two countries in 50 years.

American officials have imposed a news blackout on the current negotiations, even asking those taking part to give up their mobile phones to prevent leaks.

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