Kerry heads to Europe with Syria on agenda

AFP , Friday 6 Sep 2013

US Secretary of State will also meet Arab League leaders in Paris to update them on the Syrian issue as well as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process

US Secretary of State John Kerry headed Friday to Europe for talks aimed at shoring up support for US strikes on Syria, and to meet with Arab leaders including Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

It is the 14th trip in some seven months for Kerry since taking the job as America's top diplomat, and will take him first to Vilnius, Lithuania for a meeting with EU counterparts before he travels to Paris and London. He is due to return to the United States on Monday.

Apart from talks with Lithuanian leaders on Saturday, Kerry "will also meet with the EU foreign ministers in informal session, hosted by the Lithuanians, to discuss the Middle East, including Syria, Egypt, and the ongoing direct, final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

He is then due to fly to Paris on Saturday to meet French officials, who unlike their British counterparts have swung behind punitive US military strikes against Syria after a suspect chemical weapons attack last month on a Damascus suburb allegedly killed 1,400 people.

The top US diplomat will also meet in the French capital Sunday with Arab League leaders to update them on the Syria issue and on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Huge divisions have emerged over the Syrian crisis at a G20 summit in St Petersburg, Russia, being attended by US President Barack Obama, after Washington accused Moscow of holding "hostage" the UN Security Council.

Russia shot back on Friday, warning the United States against targeting Syria's chemical arsenal, with the foreign ministry saying in a statement that "such actions would represent a dangerous new turn in the tragic development of the Syria crisis."

Kerry will wrap up his whirlwind tour with talks in London late Sunday with Abbas. The two men have met numerous times over the past months as the American diplomat worked to kickstart the direct talks with the Israelis after a three-year stalemate.

A senior US official said Kerry would also meet with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "in the near future" and that they were working on scheduling talks. Netanyahu is however likely to travel to the United States later this month for the annual UN General Assembly.

Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians resumed on July 29, after Kerry shuttled between Jerusalem, the West Bank and Amman for several months seeking to push both sides back to the negotiating table.

The two sides have since met three times in August and in early September in Jerusalem.

In line with Kerry's desire to keep the details of the negotiations secret in order to give the process a chance to work, little has leaked about the talks.

But Palestinian officials have complained about the lack of direct US involvement, even though Kerry has appointed veteran diplomat Martin Indyk to act as the US go-between to the talks.

Ahead of the first bilateral meetings in Jerusalem on August 14, Israel announced plans to build more than 2,000 Jewish settler homes on Palestinian territory, in a move that angered Palestinian negotiators.

One senior Palestinian official said Wednesday the talks have so far proved "futile."

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