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Cairo offers to hold scrapped Arab summit

TUNIS -- Egypt stepped in yesterday to host an Arab summit after Tunisia stunned the Arab world with a unilateral decision to scrap the meeting on its soil, citing the reluctance of some countries to embrace democratic reform.

Delegates to the Tunis summit, which would have opened today, disputed Tunisia's explanation, saying President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali was unhappy that some Arab leaders did not plan to attend, and wanted to prove his democratic credentials to the United States.

Egypt expressed "astonishment and regret" at the decision. The summit had been expected to talk about reform, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Egypt welcomes holding a summit conference in the country of the [Arab League] headquarters at the earliest time that can be agreed," said a statement from the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. The headquarters of the 22-member Arab League is in Cairo.

Tunisia hit back at Cairo's offer, saying that a change in venue was no solution.

But plans for the Egyptian meeting advanced. A senior Yemeni official said Mubarak had telephoned his Yemeni counterpart, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to discuss preparations for the meeting, which is expected to be held April 16.

The Egyptian news agency MENA reported that Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia will visit Egypt today for talks with Mubarak.

Syria said the Tunisian decision was not justified, and Foreign Minister Marwan al-Muasher of Jordan also cast doubt on the need for Tunis to back out as host.

"In any summit there are differences of views, but that does not mean that the summit was not well on its way to a successful conclusion," he told CNN.

The Tunis government news agency said Tunisia had insisted that the summit explicitly endorse democracy and reject what it called "extremism, fanaticism, violence, and terrorism" -- and that other countries had balked at this.

But a Gulf delegate linked Tunisia's decision to Ben Ali's stormy visit to Washington in February, when President Bush told him he wanted to see a free press and an "open political process" in Tunisia.

Many of the delegates who were in Tunis with foreign ministers to organize the summit insisted that little or no arguing had occurred and that the talks on a communique had gone well.

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