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Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia Snub Arab League Summit


Egypt says it is sending a junior minister to the Arab League summit scheduled for Damascus this weekend. Lebanon is boycotting the meeting, and Saudi Arabia will also send a low-level delegation. The diplomatic snubs of Syria are linked to tension over the Lebanese political crisis. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Egypt says a junior cabinet minister will head its delegation to the Arab League summit set to begin in Damascus on Saturday. Saudi Arabia earlier said it was also downgrading its representation at the summit, and Lebanon said it would boycott it altogether.

Earlier in the week, Egypt had said that its foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, would lead the Egyptian delegation in Damascus. But officials now say the minister of state for legal affairs will attend the meeting instead. The change came after Saudi Arabia announced that it would send its Arab League ambassador rather than the king or foreign minister.

The moves amount to serious diplomatic snubs of the host, Syria, for a meeting that is normally attended by heads of state or, at the very least, foreign ministers. Syria's relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia have deteriorated over a number of issues, including the Palestinian factional divide and relations with Iran, but the Lebanese presidential crisis is seen as the main reason that the leaders are staying away from Damascus.

The announcement left Syrian and Arab League officials defending the summit against predictions that it will fail.

In Damascus, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa found himself fielding questions about whether Egypt and Saudi Arabia were snubbing the summit in an effort to undermine it. He denied that the intention was to make the Syrian summit fail, but he acknowledged that "there are complications in Arab relations."

Moussa used to be Egypt's foreign minister, and was clearly uncomfortable fielding questions about his own country's decision.

He insisted that Egypt will be represented at the summit, and that all important matters will be discussed there. But he added that he would not "analyze Arab-Arab relations in a news conference."

Moussa said the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah would remain on the agenda along with other regional issues.

He acknowledged that Lebanon's absence will make it difficult to take action on the Lebanese political crisis, but he insisted that the issue will remain on the table.

Syria says only countries that send leaders to the summit will be allowed to address it.

Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem refrained from criticizing Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but not Lebanon.

He said "Lebanon has lost a golden chance" to discuss its political crisis at the Syrian summit, and another "golden chance" to discuss Syrian-Lebanese relations.

The governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon accuse Syria of blocking the election of a new president in Lebanon which has been without a president since November. Syria denies it has been meddling in Lebanese politics.

Moallem suggested that the real hand behind the summit boycott was the United States, a close ally of the Egyptian, Saudi and Lebanese governments but a constant critic of Syria.

A spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry was not available for comment, but a spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak told the Associated Press that every country has the right to decide on its representative. He said the matter was not open to question.

Syria has never before hosted an Arab League summit. The Arab states awarded this year's annual summit to Damascus during last year's meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The move was seen as a reward for Syria's agreement to sign on to the Arab peace initiative aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But in the year since then, the Lebanese political crisis and the factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah have divided the Arab world, with Syria on the opposite side of both issues from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Syria is a key backer of Lebanon's opposition, led by Hezbollah, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia are allies of the Lebanese government and ruling March 14 coalition.

The crisis had led to earlier speculation that the summit would be canceled, moved or postponed, but the Arab League and Syria have insisted that it go ahead on schedule.

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