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Blair's new appeal to Arab nations

Blair and Syria's President Assad failed to agree on the merits of the Afghan bombing campaign
Blair and Syria's President Assad failed to agree on the merits of the Afghan bombing campaign  

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has heard at first hand Arab anger over the bombing campaign against Afghanistan during the first leg of a Middle East diplomatic mission.

In Syria, Blair stood next to President Bashar Assad on Wednesday as the Syrian leader denounced the raids for causing "hundreds" of civilian casualties.

It was Blair's first face-to-face confrontation with the controversy caused by the U.S. and UK campaign, although aides insisted later he had expected Assad to restate his well-known hostility to the bombing.

Blair then travelled to Saudi Arabia where he had talks in Riyadh with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah.

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In Riyadh, Blair delivered his familiar message to critics of the bombing campaign, telling reporters: "My response is very clear.

"We undertook the action against the al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime that shelters them after several weeks in which we had given the Taliban every opportunity to deliver up those responsible for the September 11 atrocities.

"The action we take is targeted, we do the maximum we can to minimise civilian casualties and I believe there is a very, very broad understanding of that right around the world.

"I think we have to understand there are different perspectives people will bring to this situation. But you can either stay out of the dialogue or get into it and try and offer an approach of understanding in the future.

"And in respect of the Middle East peace process, this is only going to work if people engage and discuss."

And he insisted on the case for the bombing campaign: "I think there's a far greater understanding than might appear."

Blair said Saudi Arabia had agreed to back efforts for a broad-based government in Afghanistan when the current conflict ended.

Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries which formally recognised the Taliban, before severing links to them last month.

"We have agreed that we should work together closely in order to make sure that in the future for Afghanistan there is a government which is as broad-based as possible, that includes all the main groupings," Blair said.

Blair and Assad both conceded they had had "candid" talks.

In Damascus, Blair appealed for an end to violence from all sides in the region, speaking in a country claimed to host some of the most extreme terror groups.

But the meeting proved tense when Assad told a joint-news conference with Blair: "We cannot accept what we see on our television every day of the bombing of innocent civilians.

"There are hundreds now every day."

He added: "Resisting occupation is an international right. An act of resistance is different from an act of terrorism."

Blair said: "This is a candid dialogue, but I would like to think that it is a dialogue that can be pursued. Violence from whatever quarter is deeply unhelpful."

Assad said that terrorism takes the form of networks and can only be defeated by countries working together.

"Terrorism has a form of network. It has not a head -- whether state or individual," he said.

"To tackle terrorism and its causes can be only through international cooperation and not by one area or by one country combating terrorism.

"Terrorism is everywhere and therefore combating terrorism has to be decided by all states in the world."

Both leaders noted "huge differences" between the Western and Arab worlds.

"There are huge differences in understanding between the West and Islam, between the West and the Arab world," Blair said.

"Yet if one thing can come out from the terrible events from the 11th of September, it is an attempt to bridge that gulf of misunderstanding and create the right circumstances for partnership in the future and I believe that it is possible."

Blair embarked on his Middle East tour after making a keynote speech on Tuesday urging people not to forget the horrors of September 11.

The address was designed to correct a perceived "wobble" in the public and media's support for the bombing campaign and Blair stressed it was important "we never forget why we are doing it."


• UK and Syria hold 'candid dialogue'
October 31, 2001
• Blair urges Syria in terror fight
October 31, 2001
• Blair: 'Never forget September 11'
October 30, 2001
• Blair: bin Laden trial 'unlikely'
October 25, 2001
• EU unites region against terror
October 20, 2001

• Saudi Arabia
• British Government
• Syrian Arab Republic

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