CAIRO (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew to Egypt and Saudi Arabia on Sunday for talks on Lebanon, a day after diplomats said Assad had rejected a U.N. request to interview him about a former Lebanese prime minister’s murder.
Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Assad discussed developments in Syria and Lebanon at the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for about an hour, before Assad flew on to Syria.
“The meeting of the two leaders covered the results of talks President Mubarak had with the Saudi king … and with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris … and with Lebanese leaders and the U.N. about Syria and Lebanon,” the MENA report said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal announced the Saudi-Syrian summit during a surprise visit to Damascus earlier.
“(The king) affirmed the kingdom’s desire for stronger relations between Syria and Lebanon in all fields, so that the interests of both countries and security of the region are protected,” said a statement on the Saudi state news agency SPA, after a meeting and banquet in Jeddah. It gave no more details.
Mubarak discussed the stand-off with King Abdullah in a stopover in Saudi Arabia last week.
Diplomats said on Saturday that Assad had rejected a U.N. request to interview him as part of an inquiry into the February 14 Beirut murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was also a Saudi citizen and close to the Saudi royals.
Syria has strongly denied any role in the truck bombing which killed Hariri.
But a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution in October threatened to punish Damascus with unspecified action if it failed to cooperate fully with the inquiry into Hariri’s death.
Former Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam told Arab media late last month that Assad had threatened Hariri a few months before he was killed.
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, said in November it had brokered a deal between Damascus and the United Nations to allow the questioning of five Syrian officials in Vienna.
Adel al-Harbi, political editor at the leading Saudi daily al-Riyadh, said Saudi Arabia wanted to find a way for Assad to meet the U.N. team without harming Syria’s sovereignty.
“The anxiety here and in Arab countries is that Syria doesn’t cooperate. Saudi Arabia is trying to get them to cooperate with the investigation to find the truth,” he said.
“An interview which respects Syrian sovereignty does no harm in itself, as long as it is an interview and not questioning.”
Diplomats say Syria agreed to allow investigators to meet Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, who accompanied Assad on his Saudi trip.
“It seems that there are Saudi and Egyptian efforts to find a comprehensive regional and international agreement regarding the U.N. request to meet President Assad,” said Syrian political analyst Imad Shuaibi.
“The U.N. request violated (international) protocol by naming the witnesses whom the commission wanted to meet.”
Assad, in an interview with an Egyptian paper, said this week that as president he had international immunity, indicating that U.N. investigators could not insist on interviewing him.