|Vol.7, No.43, 22.11.01, p1
The EU peace mission to the Middle East last weekend won an unexpected pledge from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to seek a reduction in violence by Hizbollah militants.
During private discussions in Damascus with Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt and Commission chief Romano Prodi, the president acknowledged that he had influence over the moderate faction within the Lebanon-based militia, European Voice has learned.
His comments, unreported until now, are thought to be unprecedented. "As far as I know, he has never said that publicly before," remarked an EU official.
The EU's special envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Angel Moratinos, has said he will visit al-Assad next week to see how the undertaking can be built on in concrete terms.
The Union is determined to hold the president to his word. "Syria is not a democracy and there is no free press," added the official. "He can say those kind of things without having to follow up on them."
Neither Prodi nor Verhofstadt registered surprise at al-Assad's remarks at the time. However, Verhofstadt did say that EU delegation had asked the leader to use his influence to achieve calm on the Lebanese-Israeli border "in the next days and weeks".
The EU visit to Damascus coincided with the release of nine political prisoners in the mainly Muslim state. The move has been interpreted as a signal that al-Assad, who succeeded his father as president last year, is edging towards reform.
During the Middle East visit, Prodi denied claims by Israel's premier Ariel Sharon that EU aid to the Palestinian Authority would be used to buy weapons.
The recent EU peace mission to the Middle East won an unexpected pledge from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to seek a reduction in violence by Hizbollah militants.
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