Christopher announces Syria’s cooperation in Israeli MIA issue



DAMASCUS, Syria (AP)—Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Sunday that Syria has promised to cooperate in determining the fate of seven Israeli soldiers missing in action in Lebanon, and to grant exit permits by the end of the year to Syrian Jews.

Christopher, who made the announcement Sunday after meeting for nearly four hours with Syrian President Hafez Assad, called the action on the Israeli MIAs ‘‘an important humanitarian gesture by the Syrian government.’‘

He said Assad planned to invite staff members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to Syria next month to help in the Israeli MIA issue.

‘‘The Syrian government has offered to facilitate the work of this team to help it in making contact with those who may have information about Israeli MIAs,’‘ Christopher said..

Another official said that presumably would include such Islamic militant groups as Hezbollah.

It is not known how many of the MIAs—three missing since 1982 and four since 1986—are still alive.

As for the Syrian Jews, Assad promised that by the end of this month, permits would be granted to the 800 to 850 seeking them. U.S. officials estimated the total Jewish population of Syria is now about 1,200.

After Christopher’s announcement, a senior administration official, speaking on the condition he not be identified, called the question of the missing soldiers one of ‘‘enormous emotional significance in Israel.’‘

He said Assad’s promise of cooperation was ‘‘an example of an effort to reach out at a human level.’‘

Christopher plans to meet again with Assad on Thursday and hinted that the second session might result in announcements demonstrating further progress toward thawing relations between Israel and Syria.

Asked if he thought the gesture on the MIAs would lead to a resumption of long-stalled bilateral negotiations between the two long-time enemies, Christopher replied, ‘‘I think I’d reserve that announcement for Thursday. We’re doing some detailed planning.’‘

Christopher earlier cautioned against ‘‘unreasonable expectations’‘ from his meeting with Assad, which were part of the U.S. diplomat’s latest effort to restore movement to the Middle East peace process.

‘‘I don’t want to create unreasonable expectations,’‘ he said, adding that the latest round of diplomacy was ‘‘an opportunity to energize the discussions between Syria and Israel.’‘

In the days leading up to his visit to Syria, Christopher and his staff were openly concerned about expectations that it might produce a breakthrough in stalled negotiations over the future of the Golan Heights. They also tried to dampen speculation he would offer a range of proposals to encourage Assad to compromise with Israel.

Most prominent among the speculation was repeated reports that the United States would offer Assad a meeting with President Clinton in exchange for a signal of willingness to reach a formal peace with Israel.

Before he leaves the Middle East next weekend, Christopher would like, at the very least, to get an agreement for resumption of bilateral negotiation in Washington.

The last such talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors were held in September and were over shadowed by the dramatic announcement of an agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But progress between Israel and the PLO was not matched in the discussions between Israel and Syria.

A commentary on state-run Damascus radio Saturday repeated the demand that Isreal agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights, Syrian territory Isreal has occupied since the 1967 war.

‘‘Without this withdrawal, the peace process will keep revolving in a vicious circle and be subject to setbacks,’‘ said the broadcast.

Before leaving Jerusalem, Christopher met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and in a brief statement conceded there is ‘‘anticipation and anxiety in the air.’‘

He urged leaders to ‘‘enjoin those who they lead to avoid violence during this period.’‘

Since the signing of the Israel-PLO accord in Washington Sept. 13, young Palestinians have clashed repeatedly with Israeli troops and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Wearing his characteristic dark suit, red tie and red pocket handkerchief, Christopher toured the mosque in stocking feet.

He was guided by Hassan Zahabi who said he gave similar tours to Presidents Nixon and Carter.