Thursday, December 14, 2006
Bush presses Damascus to release all political prisoners
Assad calls on west to stop interfering in Lebanon
President George W. Bush, who is facing calls to try to engage Syria over Iraq, on Wednesday criticized Damascus for its handling of human rights and its interference in Lebanon. "The United States supports the Syrian people's desire for democracy, human rights and freedom of expression," Bush said in a statement.
"The Syrian regime should immediately free all political prisoners," he added.
Bush said Syria should "cease its efforts to undermine Lebanese sovereignty" and disclose the whereabouts of Lebanese arrested during Syria's military occupation of Lebanon.
The influential Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker urged the Bush administration to consider direct talks with Iran and Syria but the White House has so far rejected such contacts.
This came as Syria's president called on world powers Wednesday not to intervene in Lebanon, where pro- and anti-Damascus forces are locked in a political standoff, saying that the Lebanese can resolve their own problems.
Bashar Assad was speaking during talks with US Senator Bill Nelson, a member of the powerful foreign relations and armed services committees who is on a one-day visit to Damascus.
The two men "considered it important to activate a dialogue and to set up mechanisms for bilateral cooperation," state news agency SANA said, only days after a top-level US panel called on Bush to begin talking with both Syria and Iran about the Iraqi situation and broader regional issues.
Assad called on the "international community to make all efforts with countries in the region to achieve security and stability in the Middle East."
In particular, he counseled against "intervening in the affairs of Lebanon, because the Lebanese are capable of understanding each other regarding their domestic issues."
The Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Assad as saying that foreign powers should
not intervene in Lebanon as the Lebanese "are capable of reaching an understanding amongst themselves."
Syria was the powerbroker in Lebanon for nearly three decades. It was forced to withdraw its troops last year amid a public outcry over the murder of former Premier Rafik Hariri, widely blamed on Syria, which denies responsibility
Pro-Syrian political forces are now seeking to bring down the Western-backed Lebanese government with demands for greater power sharing, which the government sees as a ploy to reassert Syrian influence in the country.
Assad also affirmed Syria's policy of "supporting a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, and the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," SANA said.
Nelson, a Florida Democrat, can expect to play a major role in influencing US foreign policy after his party gained control of both houses of Congress in mid-term elections last month.
In addition to the two other key committee memberships mentioned above, Nelson was named on Monday to the Senate's intelligence committee.
He is the first US lawmaker since January 2005 to visit Syria. The country has been under US sanctions since May of the previous year because of its alleged support of terrorism and its role in Lebanese affairs.
Syria and its Lebanese allies regard the Beirut government as following Washington's line.
The US has repeatedly accused Syria of interfering in Lebanon - a charge Syria denies.
Syrian-US relations have been strained for several years. Washington accuses Syria of aiding anti-American insurgents in Iraq by allowing them to cross from Syria.
Damascus denies promoting the insurgency, arguing that it cannot have absolute control over its long and porous border with Iraq.
The US withdrew its ambassador to Damascus last year after the February 14, 2005, assassination of Hariri.
Nelson also discussed the situations in Iraq and the Palestinian territories with Assad.
Assad's meeting with the Florida Democrat was his first with a US official since the Iraq Study Group recommended last week that Washington should engage Syria and Iran in efforts to curb the bloodletting in Iraq.
Source: Daily Star.