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British Foreign Secretary Holds Talks in Damascus


British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is in Syria for talks with President Bashar al Assad, a visit widely seen as another sign of increasing European efforts to ease Syria's diplomatic isolation. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from London.

It is the first visit by a top-level British official to Syria in seven years and it is being watched closely.

Damascus has come under sharp criticism for meddling in neighboring Lebanon, for supporting militant groups, including the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, for its close ties to Tehran, and for not doing enough to stem the flow of foreign insurgents into neighboring Iraq.

Foreign Secretary Miliband told reporters he traveled to Damascus to talk about these issues and about Syria's responsibilities.

"I think there have been some important signs over the last year or so of Syria understanding the degree of concern and seeking to change some of its actions," he said. "I think it is very important that we continue to engage countries like Syria which wants to be a secular state in the heart of a stable Middle East and try to explain how it can play a big role in fostering that sort of stability."

Washington has long sought to isolate Syria because of its alleged support for terrorism, but a visit to Damascus earlier this year by French President Nicolas Sarkozy was seen as an indication that Europe was opting to engage Syria to try to bring it out of its diplomatic isolation.

Interviewed on British radio during a visit to London, Israel's President Shimon Peres said Syria must stop arming and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and show that it is ready to make peace. Then, he said, the two sides can talk about regional issues and about the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed.

"If Syria will understand that they cannot have the Golan Heights and keep Lebanon as a basis for the Iranians, then the decision will be clear," he said. "But, if she [Syria] wants back the Golan Heights and to keep her bases in Lebanon, which are really controlled and financed by the Iranians - no Israeli will agree to have Iranians on our border. We do not need them there."

Syria has held indirect talks with Israel in recent months, under Turkish mediation. Damascus has repeatedly said it wants to make peace, but it has rejected Israeli demands that it sever its alliance with Iran and drop its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups.

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