Angry Assad Raps Blair over Civilian Casualties
Byline: Jon Smith in Damascus
Tony Blair yesterday heard at first hand Arab anger over the bombing campaign against Afghanistan as he began a bruising Middle East diplomatic mission.
Mr Blair stood next to President Bashar Assad as the Syrian leader denounced the raids for causing 'hundreds' of civilian casualties - to applause from local officials and reporters.
It was the Prime Minister's first face-to-face confrontation with the controversy caused by the US and UK campaign, although aides insisted later he had expected President Assad to restate his well-known hostility to the bombing.
Mr Blair acknowledged he had risked controversy by beginning his latest round of talks in the capital of Syria, a state accused of harbouring some of the most extreme terror groups in the region.
The Prime Minister, the first British Premier to visit Damascus, said after the talks it had been a 'difficult' visit, but was said privately to believe the dialogue had proved it could be possible to build 'a bridge' to further discussions to restart the Middle East peace process.
Mr Blair later travelled to Saudi Arabia where he had talks in Riyadh with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah.
After this morning's talks in Damascus, Mr Blair appealed for an end to violence from all quarters in the Middle East to give a fresh peace initiative a chance.
But President Assad launched his stinging condemnation of the allied bombing campaign and staunch defence of the groups fighting for the 'liberation' of Palestine - also rebuking Israel for its 'state terrorism'.
Of the Afghanistan bombing campaign, the president said: 'We cannot accept what we see on our television every day of the bombing of innocent civilians. There are hundreds now every day.'
And he likened Palestinian terror groups to the Free French fighting under General Charles de Gaulle in the Second World War.
President Assad, who studied opthalmology in London for three years in the 1990s, defended groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which are regarded as terrorists organisations by Israel.
And he criticised the daily 'terrorism' he said Israel was committing in Palestinian territories.
He said: 'Resisting occupation is an international right. An act of resistance is different from an act of terrorism.'
He said: 'We cannot see with one eye ... cannot separate the terrorism we see every day that Israel practises against the Palestinians.'
President Assad also criticised the military campaign in Afghanistan in front of his British guest - the UK is the only nation to have joined the US attacks. …