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Syria Willing to Resume Peace Talks with Israel, says UN - 2003-07-17

Top United Nations Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen confirmed Thursday that Syria has expressed interest in reviving peace talks with Israel.

Mr. Roed-Larsen says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to resume negotiations with Israel at the point where they previously broke off.

"It is true that President Assad told me, as he also has done publicly thereafter, that there is an interest in Syria to go back to the negotiating table again based on established terms of reference," he said.

The U.N. envoy made his remarks to journalists at United Nations headquarters when asked about a report in an Israeli newspaper. But Mr. Roed-Larsen denied the rest of the Israeli news report, which says that the Syrian president offered to intervene in the case of four Israelis missing in Lebanon.

Mr. Roed-Larsen says he is willing to act as a "go-between" to revive talks between Israel and Syria, in dispute over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

But he says the two countries must first agree on a starting point.

Israel's U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, was skeptical about the developments and repeated his government's stance that Syria must drop all pre-conditions to future talks.

Mr. Gillerman also defended the fence Israel is building to separate the Palestinian territories as a security, not a political, measure. But U.N. envoy Roed-Larsen called on Israel to halt work on the fence immediately.

"The members of the Quartet [the U.N., U.S., EU and Russia] are, I think, unanimous in their opinion that the security fence infringes on Palestinian rights and disturbs and disrupts everyday life for a very significant number of Palestinians, on top of the fact that it also can prejudice the agreements which were supposed to be reached in line with the 'road map,'" he said.

Mr. Roed-Larsen delivered a positive report to the Security Council on recent progress in implementing the so-called "road map" for peace, created by the Quartet - the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States. He welcomed the United States' role in reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and Egypt's efforts towards reaching a ceasefire with Arab militant groups. Now that there has been a sharp decline in violence, Mr. Roed-Larsen urged the international community to help the two sides maintain the momentum in the peace process.