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Rice Discusses Human Rights, Syria, with Egyptian Counterpart

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is raising the prospect of new U.S. sanctions against Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. She spoke after a meeting late Tuesday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit which she said also covered Egypt's human rights record.

Ms. Rice heaped praise on the Egyptian government for its recent efforts in support of Middle East peace, including its hosting last week of the Israeli-Palestinian summit in Sharm el-Sheikh.

But returning to a theme sounded by President Bush in his State of the Union address, the Secretary said Egypt has an opportunity to be as great a leader for reform in the Middle East as it has been in the quest for regional peace.

At a news conference with her Egyptian counterpart Mr. Aboul Gheit by her side, Ms. Rice said she had raised human rights issues including the case of Egyptian opposition party leader Ayman Nour, arrested late last month on fraud charges his supporters say are trumped-up. "I did raise our concerns, our very strong concerns about this case. I did talk at some length about the importance of this issue to the United States, to the American administration, to the American Congress, to the American people. And I expressed our very strong hope that there will be a resolution of this very soon," she said.

Ms. Rice's press appearance with the Egyptian minister was her first since her decision late Monday to recall U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus to underline U.S. outrage over the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

As her spokesman did earlier, Ms. Rice said the United States was not laying blame on Syria for the killing, which she said must be thoroughly investigated.

At the same time, though, she said Syria's continued military presence in Lebanon in defiance of an American sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution last September is an obvious factor in political instability there. "This is a part of the destabilization that takes place when you have the kind of conditions that you do now in Lebanon thanks to Syrian interference. So we are united with the rest of the world in wanting a fulll investigation into what happened here. But there is no doubt that the conditions created by Syria's presence there have created a destabilized situation in Lebanon," she said.

Ms. Rice said U.S.-Syrian relations are worsening because of other factors, including the use of Syrian territory by elements supporting the Iraqi insurgency.

She said she hoped the Damascus government will take the recall of ambassador Scobey as a very strong signal that the Bush administration does not like the direction of U.S.-Syrian relations.

She said the administration will consider what other options it has at its disposal to register its displeasure with the situation, citing the Syria Accountability Act approved by Congress in 2003.

Last May, President Bush invoked several of the penalties provided for in the law including a near-total ban on U.S. exports to Syria, and the freezing of some Syrian assets in the United States.

However, Mr. Bush deferred on more severe sanctions including scaling back U.S. diplomatic relations with Syria. Officials have not said when Ambassador Scobey might return to Damascus, but they say her recall is not a permanent downgrade of diplomatic ties.