Albright urges Assad to curb Hezbollah

Wednesday, October 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday to curb the radical Islamic group Hezbollah, calling its kidnapping of Israelis a dangerous provocation.

But Albright emerged from the two hour and 20-minute meeting in a Saudi palace without a commitment from Assad, according to a senior U.S. official. In their first extended encounter, Assad told Albright that Hezbollah was a largely social organization gaining in influence among ordinary Arabs.

Assad also cautioned Albright that anti-Israeli sentiment was on the rise in the streets of the Arab world and should be taken into account by U.S. policy-makers, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Albright and Assad spoke one-on-one for 50 minutes, without the aides who sat in on the rest of their session.

Assad later arrived in Jordan on a several-hour visit. King Abdullah II greeted the Syrian leader at Amman airport and later escorted him to a hilltop palace where the talks were due to open.

Information Minister Taleb Rifai told reporters before the talks began that both leaders would discuss coordinating stances ahead of the Arab summit. He declined to elaborate. Asked if Jordan would mediate with Assad to bring an end to bumpy relations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Rifai said: ``Everything is possible.''

But he added ``the participation of all Arab sides in the summit in Cairo is an opportunity to mobilize all the support for the Palestinians.''

Albright had a cursory 10-minute conversation with Syria's new leader at the funeral of his father, Hafez Assad, in Damascus last June. Wednesday's meeting was described as a serious policy discussion as well as a general get-acquainted session.

There was scant discussion of the stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks. They broke down in January when Syria rejected an offer by Israel to recover the strategic Golan Heights because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was unwilling to throw in a strip of territory along the Sea of Galilee, Israel's primary source of scarce water.

Syria lost the border territory in the 1967 Middle East war.

Even though Assad did not take up Albright's pitch that Syria, which effectively controls Lebanon, should curb Hezbollah operations there, she felt it was important to make the point, the official said. Assad ``certainly heard it'' and did not dispute Syria had enormous influence in Lebanon, the official said.

Barak has withdrawn Israeli troops for the neighboring country where some 30,000 Syrian troops remain. The Syrians should use their influence in Lebanon to halt its campaign against Israelis, the official said.

The meeting was arranged by Saudi officials after Albright briefed them Tuesday on the emergency summit in Egypt that the United States hopes will produce a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

Albright would like to rally Syria to support the agreement. She also was looking for indications that Assad was interested in resuming peace talks with Israel, which collapsed last January.

Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers Oct. 7 on the Lebanese border. On Sunday, Hezbollah announced it had seized Elchanan Tennenbaum, a 54-year-old reserve Israeli air force colonel. He works as a consultant in the electronics industry.

The Israeli government has said it holds Lebanon and its patron, Syria, responsible for the kidnappings.

Albright made a courtesy call Tuesday on King Fahd, who has been ill, as she stopped here to brief Saudi officials on the emergency summit at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, and then met with Crown Prince Abdullah.

They had an extended conversation on the results of the summit, the situation in the region ``and the efforts that we can undertake to move back to the peace process,'' Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker said afterward.

Assad arrived here earlier Tuesday and held talks with Abdullah on the peace process and violence in Palestinian areas, Saudi officials said.

Assad's two-day visit preceded the Arab summit meeting to be held in Egypt on Saturday.

Syria's state-run Damascus radio said it was part of Syria's continued efforts to form a ``strong Arab front'' that could exploit Arab potentials to confront Israel.

There was no word, meanwhile, whether Albright would look into reports that Saudi nationals were linked to the attack last Thursday on a U.S. destroyer at a refueling stop in Yemen.

A senior U.S. official said there would be no statements while the FBI conducted its investigation.