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Syria said to back border violence halt

Israeli pledge sought in return

JERUSALEM -- Syria's president agreed to a proposal to halt violence along Israel's northern border if Israel promised to end flights over Lebanon and not attack its territory, a senior Western diplomat told the Associated Press yesterday.

A cease-fire would be followed by efforts to renew peace talks between Israel and Syria that were suspended in 2000.

Israel did not respond to the proposal, which was contained in a document written in October by a Western mediator, the senior Western diplomat involved in the effort said.

Israeli officials would not comment on the effort -- parts of which were also reported yesterday by the Israeli newspaper Maariv -- and no reaction was immediately available from Syria.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the two countries had held informal talks several months ago. Israel suspended the talks, concerned Syria was merely trying to gain favor with the United States. Word of the meetings was leaked, he said, and contacts broke down.

The diplomat's statements came two days after The New York Times quoted Syrian President Bashar Assad as saying he was prepared to resume peace talks with Israel. In response to that interview, Israeli officials said Assad should first show good faith by reining in the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups based in Syria.

The diplomat said the proposal emerged from a trip to Damascus by a Western mediator shortly after an Oct. 5 Israeli airstrike against a camp in Syria that the Israelis said was a training base for Palestinian militants.

The airstrike was the first time in more than three decades that Israeli warplanes had attacked deep in Syrian territory. Syrian officials said the base had been empty for years, and no one was hurt in the raid.

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