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Swiss back new round of Syria-Israel talks

Ambühl held talks with senior Syrian government officials Keystone

A senior Swiss diplomat has reiterated the government's support for peace talks between Syria and Israel during a three-day visit to the Middle East.

This content was published on January 25, 2007 - 19:02

Earlier this week Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey confirmed media reports that Switzerland had acted as a mediator between the two countries. Israel says the talks were unofficial.

According to the Swiss foreign ministry, State Secretary Michael Ambühl held talks in Damascus on Tuesday with Syria's foreign minister, Walid Al-Muallem, and Deputy-Prime Minister Abdallah Dardari.

Bern said Ambühl had stressed Switzerland's support for all efforts to encourage dialogue between conflicting parties in the region.

"As a neutral country, Switzerland is well positioned to facilitate such dialogues," said the Swiss foreign ministry in a statement.

"In this context, Switzerland welcomed Syria's repeated calls for a resumption of dialogue and peace talks with Israel."

Secret talks

Calmy-Rey confirmed on Monday that Switzerland was involved in secret talks between Israeli and Syrian negotiators.

She said that a top Swiss diplomat – widely believed to be Middle East expert Nicolas Lang – was in Syria and that Ambühl would follow later in the week.

News reports stated that Lang visited Jerusalem at the weekend and later travelled to Damascus to meet senior government officials there, including Syrian vice-president Farouk Shara and Al-Muallem.

Lang is said to have played a key role in the Swiss-backed Geneva Accord, an unofficial peace proposal launched in 2003 aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Thursday both the Swiss foreign ministry and the Syrian mission to the United Nations in Geneva declined to confirm the reports or give further details on the secret talks.

Golan Heights

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, informal negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus were launched in September 2004.

Discussions centred on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights – captured from Syria in 1967 – in exchange for Damascus ending its support of anti-Israel militant groups and distancing itself from Iran.

It is understood that agreement on these and other issues would precede the signing of a formal peace treaty between the two countries. The newspaper said both sides broke off talks in July last year.

According to Haaretz, the meetings took place with the full support of the Israeli and Syrian governments.

Israeli government officials initially denied any knowledge of the meetings, while Syria said the Haaretz report was "completely false".

Unofficial talks

On Thursday Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, told swissinfo that the talks had taken place but described them as strictly "non-government".

"The truth is that while such talks are hardly routine, it's not totally uncommon either that you have... non-government people meeting from both sides," he said.

"These things do happen, and if the Swiss government wants to support this sort of non-government to non-government activity as part of the way they try to promote peace in the Middle East, then we don't have a problem with that."

Regev said the Israeli government had been informed of the meetings between former Israeli diplomat Alon Liel and Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Suleiman but had certainly not authorised them.

He added that Israel still wanted peace with Damascus but said that at the moment it was difficult to take the Syrian government seriously as a partner because of its ties with Iran and militant Islamic groups.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont with agencies

In brief

During his visit to the Middle East, Ambühl also met the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, in Beirut.

The discussions focused in particular on the country's internal reform efforts to overcome problems that have surfaced since the conflict in July 2006.

Another topic was Switzerland's humanitarian assistance to the emergency relief efforts and to the programme for Palestinian refugees, as well as development cooperation in the context of the reforms.

International donors pledged billions of dollars in aid at a conference in Paris on Thursday to raise money for the war-scarred country.

On Thursday the Swiss government announced it would step up its aid regarding demining and other safety equipment.

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