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Boycott clouds Syrian Arab summit

The Lebanese delegation's seats remain empty at the start of the Arab summit on 29 March
Lebanon's seats remained empty at the start of the summit

The Arab League's annual summit has begun in the Syrian capital Damascus but key leaders are staying away amid signs of a growing regional rift.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are among those sending only low-level delegations to the two-day gathering.

They blame Syria for the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon, whose government is staying away completely.

Opening the summit, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied his country was meddling in Lebanon.

He was responding to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who accused Syria of preventing the election of a consensus president in Beirut.

Saudi criticism

Mr Assad said his country was willing to join "Arab or non-Arab efforts" to end Lebanon's political crisis "on condition that they are based on Lebanese national consensus".

He was careful not to criticise those Arab leaders who refused to come to the summit, the BBC's Heba Saleh reports from Damascus.

Nonetheless, it appears the rift is deepening between Syria and the main pro-Western states of the region, our correspondent says.

In a televised press conference from Riyadh, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, suggested Syria had not abided by the Arab consensus on Lebanon.

"The problem is that what was decided unanimously in the Arab League, including by Syria, is not being carried out," he said.

The foreign minister called for ''counter-measures".

US blamed

Syria had billed the summit as a golden opportunity for regional unity but there is little sign of this, BBC Middle East correspondent Katya Adler reports from Damascus.

There are now two axes - Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are on one side and the rest are on the another
Wahid Abdel-Meguid
Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies

The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon are all staying at home because they view host country Syria as a trouble-maker, too close to Iran and a destructive force in divided Lebanon, our correspondent says.

Syria has accused them in the past of being subservient to the US and Foreign Minister Walid Moualem accused Washington before the summit of trying to divide Arabs by urging allies to stay away.

"They [the US] did their best to prevent the summit but they failed," Mr Moualem told reporters on the eve of the summit.

"Their aim is to divide the Arab world."

He promised that there would be "no trace of the United States on the summit's work or agenda".

'Two axes'

Wahid Abdel-Meguid, of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, believes the division within the region is now clear.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (centre) greets Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on 28 March ahead of the summit
Libya's Muammar Gaddafi (left) is one of those who is attending

"There are now two axes - Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are on one side and the rest are on the another," he was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

"The Syrian axis is coherent and they have a clear objective and they are working in an organised way."

Our Middle East correspondent notes that people across the Arab world say they are sick of this infighting.

There is no shortage of crises in their region but Arab states disagree over who is to blame and what is to be done and it seems unlikely they will resolve those differences this weekend, she says.

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