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Obama determined to reach Mideast peace deal, says US envoy

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday as Washington stepped up diplomatic efforts in the region, also dispatching Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Israel and Jordan.


AFP - US Middle East envoy George Mitchell said he had "candid and positive" talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday as Washington began a flurry of diplomacy in the region aimed at pushing foward the peace process.

Mitchell arrived overnight for his second visit to Damascus since June and was due to head on to Israel later on Sunday, as Defence Secretary Robert Gates was also due in the region.

"I have just completed a very candid and positive conversation with President Assad," Mitchell said.

"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.

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, he said.

"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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

Assad reitierated the Syrian demand in his talks with Mitchell, insisting on "the right of Arabs to recover their occupied land through a just and comprehensive peace based on international resolutions and the principle of land for peace," the official Syrian Arab News Agency said.

The last round of direct peace talks between the two sides broke down in 2000 when Israel baulked at the demand for the return of the whole Golan, right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Jewish state's main water source.

US-Syrian relations -- which were strained under the administration of president George W. Bush -- have begun to improve since Obama became president.

Washington announced on June 24 its decision to send an ambassador back to Damascus to replace the envoy who was recalled in 2005 after the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The killing was widely blamed on Syria although Damascus has steadfastly denied any involvement.

After his talks with Syrian leaders, Mitchell headed on to Israel where he was due to hold a 3 pm (1200 GMT) meeting in Tel Aviv with Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

The US defence secretary was also due in the Jewish state and National Security Advisor James Jones is to travel to the region later this week.

The flurry of diplomatic activity comes amid mounting frictions between the close allies over Washington's demand for a halt to Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said before the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that the US envoys' visits reflected the "strong and broad relationship between Israel and the United States."

But he acknowledged there were also differences.

"Naturally even within this friendly relationship there isn't total agreement on everything and on several issues we are trying to reach that understanding in order for us to be able to promote our common interests of peace, security and stability," he said.

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