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US envoy reaches Cairo on Mideast peace tour

EGYPT: US Middle East envoy George Mitchell reached Egypt on the latest leg of a whirlwind regional tour after stops in Israel and Syria earlier on Sunday, as Washington bids to jumpstart stalled peace talks.

Mitchell will meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday, the president’s office said, after the US envoy held talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.

Washington is committed to a “comprehensive peace in the Middle East and that includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the regions,” Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s office quoted Mitchell as saying after the two met in Tel Aviv.

Earlier in Damascus the former US senator said that he “just completed a very candid and positive conversation with President Assad.”

“I discussed with President Assad the prospects for moving forward on our goals of comprehensive peace in the region and improved bilateral ties between Syria and the United States,” he said.

Mitchell’s Middle East swing is also scheduled to include a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah and talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, likely to focus on US demands that Israel halt settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu has so far refused to heed the calls and the disagreement has led to a level in tensions not seen in years between the two close allies.

Mitchell’s latest trip to the region comes as part of a diplomatic push that will also see Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrive for a one-day visit in Israel on Monday and National Security Advisor James Jones make a three-day trip beginning on Tuesday.

US President Barack Obama is determined to reach a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbours in order to guarantee “stability, security and prosperity” in the region, Mitchell said in Damascus.

“If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace.

“We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavour.”

Obama has moved to re-engage Damascus as part of a bid to breathe new life into the faltering Middle East peace process.

Syria and Israel held four rounds of preliminary negotiations through Turkish mediators last year but Syria broke them off in December amid Israel’s deadly offensive against the Gaza Strip.

The new Israeli government of Netanyahu has since rejected Syria’s minimum condition for a peace treaty the return of the strategic Golan Heights which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.


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