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Monday, 12 June, 2000, 20:07 GMT 21:07 UK
Assad brother claims leadership
bashar
Damascus crowds back Bashar for the leadership
The exiled younger brother of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has challenged Mr Assad's son Bashar for the leadership.

Rifaat al-Assad is a leader of the Syrian people, loves his people as his people love him

Rifaat al-Assad's spokesman

Rifaat al-Assad is furious that the ruling Ba'ath party has already nominated Bashar, 34, as successor to Mr Assad who died on Saturday.

President Assad's funeral promises to be elaborate affair, beginning in Damascus on Tuesday at 0800 (0500 GMT) and ending in the evening 200 km (125 miles) to the northwest at his home village of Qardaha where he will be buried.

Mr Assad died of a heart attack on Saturday aged 69.

Foreign dignitaries have been arriving in Syria, with President Omar El Bashir of Sudan first to arrive.

Rifaat al-Assad
Rifaat al-Assad: In luxurious exile
Most, including French President Jacques Chirac, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, will fly in early on Tuesday.

In Damascus, hundreds of thousands of banners and portraits of Mr Assad and his two sons are on buildings, cars and motorcycles.

Black cloth has been sold by the metre to drape on buildings - some mourners have even cut themselves to express their sorrow in keeping with Shiite Muslim tradition.

Leadership challenge

Rifaat al-Assad's spokesman, speaking from Marbella in Spain, where he has a home, said: "What is happening in Syria is a real farce and an unconstitutional piece of theatre which is a real violation of the law and the constitution.
Bashar al-Assad
All eyes are now on Bashar al-Assad

"The only legal constitutional reality is embodied by Dr Rifaat al-Assad." Rifaat, 62, has lived in luxurious exile since 1986 in Spain and Paris after his "defence brigades" mounted a failed challenge to his brother's authority.

He was stripped of the title of vice-president two years ago, and a newspaper said on Monday the Syrian authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest.

Rifaat's son, Mudar Rifaat al-Assad, immediately renounced his father, saying: "Our father is Hafez al-Assad and we have no other father anywhere else in the world."

Autocratic rule

So far there has been no sign of dissension inside Syria about elevating Bashar, an eye doctor who has never held a major political post.

candle
Candles are lit in a Damascus church for Hafez al-Assad
Thousands of people poured onto the streets of Damascus on Monday to mourn their late president and to proclaim: "Our hope is in Bashar".

State television has also shown senior military officers, led by the defence minister, General Mustafa Tlas, pledging allegiance to Bashar, who has been promoted to take charge of the armed forces.

Crucial time

US Secretary of State Madeline Albright urged Bashar to follow his father's path in the search for peace in the Middle East.

The US said on Monday it will not put pressure on Syria to return to peace negotiations with Israel until Damascus has completed the transition of power.

The key thing for us is to make sure the door remains open

US envoy Dennis Ross

Mr Assad's death comes at a crucial time, following Israel's recent pull-out of Lebanon, and ahead of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington.

The US special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, said Washington would only press for a resumption of peace negotiations when the Syrians felt they could focus on the issue.

He said: "The key thing for us is to make sure the door remains open."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"It's a very closed country"
Moshe Fogel, Israeli Government spokesman
"We have many question marks in our minds"
See also:

12 Jun 00 | Middle East
12 Jun 00 | Middle East
11 Jun 00 | Middle East
12 Jun 00 | Middle East
10 Jun 00 | Middle East
11 Jun 00 | Media reports
12 Jun 00 | Middle East
12 Jun 00 | Middle East
12 Jun 00 | Media reports
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