Thursday, September 4, 2008

Damascus, Syria - French President Gives Syria Letter From Shalit's Father To Shalit

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday passed a letter from Noam Shalit, the father of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, to Syrian President Bashar Assad, officials from Sarkozy's office said. The officials, who were speaking anonymously in accordance with presidential policy, said the letter from Noam Shalit is to be handed over to the emir of Qatar, who is to pass it to Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Gilad Shalit has been held captive by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for two years.

French daily Le Monde reported Thursday that the French president would like Assad to lean on Meshal to forward the letter to the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, so that it can deliver the letter to Gilad Shalit. Sarkozy landed in Damascus on Wednesday to take part in a multilateral summit with heads of state from Turkey and Qatar.

Last month, Noam Shalit met with French officials, and asked for Sarkozy's help in winning his son's release. Shalit asked that Sarkozy discuss his son with Assad. The Shalit family expects Sarkozy to address the matter during his visit to Syria, since Gilad is a French citizen, and Assad shelters Hamas' political leadership in Damascus, led by Khaled Meshal. "Assad undoubtedly holds sway over the members of the Hamas political bureau, and can help advance the stuck negotiations," said members of the campaign to free Shalit.

The prime minister of Turkey, the president of France and the emir of Qatar are set to meet Thursday in Damascus with Assad, in a step that symbolizes an increase in Syria's power in the region and the end of the isolation that has been imposed on it.

Speaking at a press conference on the arrival of Sarkozy in Damascus on Wednesday, Assad denied that Syria was promoting a "new regional axis." However he stressed that all the participants in the summit were leading countries: France being the current president of the European Union, Syria as current chair of the Arab Summit, and Qatar as current chairman of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

One of the central issues the two presidents discussed was the Syria-Israel peace process. French sources told the Arab media outlets that the next round of talks between Syria and Israel would begin on Sunday in Turkey. Sources in Israel said this round would be critical in the formulation of a "declaration of principles" on which the parties are working, that in turn will form the basis for further talks.

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