02/09/2007, 00.00
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US only willing to discuss Iraqi refugees with Syria

Condoleezza Rice gives green light to US diplomats to talk with Damascus about the humanitarian emergency facing Iraqi refugees. About 800,000 are in Syria itself. UN is set to convene an international conference on the matter.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday she had authorised the US embassy in Damascus to talk to Syrian officials about Iraqi refugees but played down the chances of broader talks about Iraq. Meanwhile the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has convened a meeting for mid-April in Geneva to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. It wants to get more governments to provide assistance to refugees and displaced Iraqis.

Washington has long accused Syria of facilitating the flow of Islamist fighters and weapons across its border with Iraq, an accusation Damascus rejects. For this reason, the Bush administration for months has resisted arguments it should engage directly with Damascus over Iraq, arguing that Syria is not reliable partner. However, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ms Rice told lawmakers she had "explicitly" authorised the top US diplomat in Damascus to talk to Syria about the flow of Iraqi refugees into that country.

About 3.7 million Iraqis have fled the country (800,000 in Syria) or left their homes for safer havens within Iraq, according to the UNHCR.

In addition to talks with Syria on the issue, the US State Department this week also set up a task force to study ways to help Iraq’s neighbours cope with the influx of refugees and decide whether to help Iraqis that work for US forces in Iraq, who are therefore threatened, to emigrate to the United States.

Similarly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres is organising an international conference in Geneva to help countries like Jordan and Syria who are host to more than a million Iraqi refugees.

From Saudi Arabia, he stressed how the refugees are suffering from their situation and how their presence is putting pressure on host countries.

He insisted that help from the international community was “essential” and urged Saudi authorities to play an active role in the mid-April conference.

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