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Assad Receiving Christopher on Return Visit

April 24, 1996

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ As Secretary of State Warren Christopher talked for 4 1/2 hours today with the Syrian president, President Clinton met in Washington with Lebanon’s president and reported ``encouraging news″ on work toward a truce between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

But Clinton’s guest, Ilyas Hrawi, said he cannot guarantee a lasting end to the violence being played out in southern Lebanon so long as Israeli troops remain there in their self-declared security zone. A cease-fire Christopher is trying to seal would not require Israeli withdrawal, but a competing French proposal would.

Christopher and President Hafez Assad were discussing a one-page U.S. cease-fire proposal with suggested Israeli changes. As soon as the marathon session ended, Christopher left Assad’s palace for a 55-minute motorcade drive through rugged countryside into Lebanon’s heartland, the Bekaa Valley, to meet Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The passage was under the protection of dozens of Lebanese soldiers riding jeeps and trucks, some with machine guns mounted on the roof.

``The secretary felt it was important to be in Lebanon with the Lebanese prime minister,″ State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said. ``The objective is to get him to sign on to the American plan.″

In Washington, Clinton told reporters, ``I think we’ll eventually get this worked out ..., but sooner is better than later. It should have been done yesterday.″

But he added: ``I hope we’re quite close. I’ve just got some encouraging news that I can’t announce now.″ Clinton said he has learned not to get overly excited by seemingly positive developments.

Hrawi said he found ``a very sincere will″ in Clinton to make peace in the Middle East.

But, he said, ``I, like Thomas in the Bible, would like to see action on the ground before I give you a final answer. ... Without the Israeli withdrawal, I really can’t guarantee anything.″

After Hariri and Christopher met in Chtoura, Lebanon, the secretary of state said ``difficult problems remain,″ but the distances are narrowing among all sides.

``We are expecting a reply very soon″ to points in the American plan that need to be clarified, Hariri said. With people dying every day, he said, a way must be found to clear up ``all this mess we have seen.″

Like his president, the Lebanese premier put great stress on the Israeli presence in his country.

Asked his plans for getting rid of the Hezbollah, Hariri said in English: ``We are not talking about Hezbollah. We are talking about security and a cease-fire,″ and about ending ``the occupation. We will do our best to liberate our territory.″

In Damascus, Syrian and U.S. officials busily tried to put to rest the idea that Assad snubbed Christopher by refusing without explanation to meet with him on Tuesday.

The Americans said health problems may have prompted the cancellation. They said Assad, who is 65 and has battled health problems for more than a decade, appeared exhausted during today’s meeting.

``The story in the media which was trying to say something was impolite in the relations between Secretary Christopher and Syria were without any foundation,″ Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said.

``The secretary is always welcome in Damascus,″ he declared in an unusual public statement at the airport.

Christopher’s reply indicated waning patience. ``Every day that goes by runs a risk for civilians on both sides of the (Israel-Lebanon) border,″ he said. ``I hope the parties come to a very prompt resolution.″

Today, Israeli warplanes in pursuit of Hezbollah guerrillas blasted a pipeline providing water to 23 villages in southern Lebanon and damaged a U.N. armored vehicle, U.N. officials said.

As Israel’s bombing blitz against guerrillas continued for a 14th day, a buildup of Israeli armor and troops was reported along the border with south Lebanon.

U.S. officials blamed such violence for Tuesday’s decision to cancel a Christopher visit to Lebanon then.

Assad’s cancellation of the Tuesday meeting delayed by a day getting his counterproposals to those given to Christopher in Jerusalem by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

At the other end of the shuttle, Christopher conferred again with Peres on the telephone before returning to Damascus. The prime minister has agreed to halt Israel’s air attacks in Lebanon if Hezbollah stops rocketing northern Israel.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette met with Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Velayati, and planned to see Assad after Christopher’s meeting with the Syrian leader.

Iran is the principal supporter of Hezbollah. And a French spokesman in Damascus, Yves Doutriaux, said Velayati assured de Charette that Tehran is ``sending signals″ to the Hezbollah to accept a truce.

According to French sources, Christopher has told de Charette his floating of a separate French cease-fire proposal was complicating the U.S. diplomatic mission.

In Paris, President Jacques Chirac’s government denied that separate U.S. and French plans were causing problems in negotiations to stop the killing in Lebanon.

``We don’t seek a paternity certificate. We seek a result,″ Foreign Ministry spokesman Jacques Rummelhardt said. ``It’s not a race.″

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