Abbas in Syria

DAMASCUS (AFP) — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Syria on Wednesday for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, on his first visit to Damascus since being elected in January.

He was greeted at the airport by Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa and was to meet Assad on Thursday, during a trip expected to reinforce an improvement in ties between Damascus and the Palestinian Authority.

He is also expected to meet with the exiled heads of Palestinian factions based in Damascus amid attempts to bring them into a national unity government.

Speaking to the press about his upcoming talks, Abbas highlighted what he said was the “important and essential role of Damascus in the Middle East peace process and in Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

He also pointed out that any peace “would not be complete without Israel returning all occupied Arab territory,” including the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

For his part, Sharaa said Syria would “support the Palestinian cause and a just and durable peace” in the region.

Assad and Abbas last met in December 2004, after the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but before Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority.

Farouq Kaddoumi, who heads the mainstream Fateh group but whose relations with Abbas are notoriously bad, met with Sharaa in Damascus on Monday before also holding talks with the faction leaders in Syria.

The Islamist movement, Hamas, whose supremo Khaled Meshaal is based in Damascus, announced Monday it would not take part in a unity government aimed at overseeing Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip.

But in his remarks, Abbas reiterated his call on all Palestinians, including Hamas, to participate in government.

“It is an important national question that interests all Palestinians and that will be pursued” following next month’s Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he said.

Relations between Damascus and Arafat varied over the decades from strained to hostile, especially after the 1993 autonomy accords between Israel and the Palestinians, which were vehemently opposed by Syria.

But the veteran Palestinian leader and Assad met in March 2001 on the sidelines of an Arab summit in Amman.

After Damascus, Abbas is to travel to Beirut on Friday for talks with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and leaders of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who are based in the country, said his national security adviser, Jibril Rajub.

The trip follows a similar visit to Beirut last December by Abbas, the first by a Palestinian leader since Arafat was forced out of Lebanon a year after the 1982 Israeli invasion.

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