S. Arabia says visit by Syrian FM cancelled

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem called off a visit planned for Tuesday to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the first since a public row between the two countries, a Saudi official said.“The scheduled visit has been cancelled,” the official told AFP, without giving any reasons. He said Muallem had been expected to hold talks on Tuesday with King Abdullah in the Red Sea city of Jeddah and deliver a message from Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But in Damascus, Syria’s state news agency SANA denied any such visit was planned, saying the reports had been “spread by the media”.

Tensions between Riyadh and Damascus erupted into a public row in mid-August, when Syrian Vice President Farouq Sharaa claimed that the oil-rich kingdom’s regional role had become paralysed. Riyadh retorted that Damascus was trying to stoke disorder in the region.

Relations between the two had already chilled after the assassination of the Saudi-backed Lebanese former premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005 which was widely blamed on Syria. Damascus denied any links to the killing.

Ties also deteriorated because of disagreements over last year’s war between Israel and Lebanon’s Syria- and Iran-backed Shiite movement Hizbollah. They were further strained after the Hizbollah-led Lebanese opposition launched a campaign to oust the government of Western-backed Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who is close to Saudi Arabia. Syria moved to calm the row, with an official saying Sharaa’s statements had been “unjustly distorted.”

Meanwhile, the CNN reported Tuesday quoting US government and military sources that Israel carried out a rare air strike inside Syria last week targeting a shipment of arms.

Israeli officials have so far maintained a veil of silence over Syrian reports that Israeli warplanes violated its airspace on Thursday ratcheting up the tension between the neighbouring foes still officially at war.

Reporter Christiane Amanpour said Tuesday on the Cable News Network (CNN) that “sources now are telling me that in fact Israel did conduct a military strike against Syrian territory. That it was an air strike, that it perhaps involved Israeli ground forces.”

She added it was believed the strike targeted”weapons that were either coming into Syria or that were being trans-shipped from Iran through Syria to Hizbollah.”

US government and US military officials had told CNN that Israel did conduct a rare air strike inside Syria and “it has left a big hole in the desert,” she added. Syria said its air defences had opened fire on Israeli warplanes flying over the northeast of the country in the early hours of Thursday and warned it was weighing its response to the Israeli “aggression.”

But Israeli officials have made no comment on the allegations, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “specifically instructed ministers not to talk about the incident related to Syria at all,” one senior Israeli government official said.

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