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Medvedev Offers Nuclear Plants to Syria at Damascus Talks

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, right, speaking during a press conference on Tuesday with President Dmitry Medvedev, left, at the presidential palace in Damascus. Hussein Malla

President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that Russia could build nuclear power reactors in Syria as Moscow pushes to revive its clout in the Middle East.

"Cooperation on atomic energy could get a second wind," Medvedev said at a news conference with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after their talks in Damascus.

Assad and Medvedev discussed "oil and gas cooperation, as well as constructing conventional or nuclear-powered electricity stations," Assad said.

Syria has been suffering huge electricity blackouts for years because its power generation meets only two-thirds of demand. Nuclear energy cooperation between Damascus and Moscow may anger Israel, however, which has been careful to prevent its hostile neighbors from getting hold of any nuclear fission technology.

Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko, who accompanied Medvedev to Syria, told reporters that Russia was “in favor” of building more nuclear energy reactors in Iran, in addition to the one it plans to launch this summer in the city of Bushehr. Many countries, including the United States, suspect that Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy is cover for a plan to make a nuclear bomb.

In a demonstration of Moscow's efforts to build pressure on Iran, Medvedev said Iran's key ally, Syria, agreed during the talks that Iran needs to reject any plans to make a nuclear bomb.

Russia and Syria stressed that it was essential for Iran to “adhere to the nonproliferation rules” and cooperate with the international community “in seeking a mutually acceptable solution,” Medvedev said at a news conference after the talks.

Assad said, however, that any sanctions against Iran would be ineffective.

Medvedev's two-day trip to Syria is the first one ever made by a Russian or Soviet leader.

As tensions grow between Syria and Israel, Assad said Syria hoped that Russia would convince Israel to return to the negotiating table and urge the United States to pursue a more rigorous policy in the Middle East settlement that has long been in a deadlock.

Israel's ties with Syria hit a new low after Israel accused Syria of providing long-range Scud missiles to the Arab militant group Hezbollah, a claim that Damascus denies. Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was in Moscow on Tuesday, sent a message to Assad with Medvedev, the Israeli presidential office said.

Medvedev also called for a ban on nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

“My colleague the Syrian president and I agree that the Middle East must be a nuclear-free zone,” Medvedev said. “Any other development of events would mean a regional and possibly even a global catastrophe.”

Medvedev reiterated Russia's offer of hosting a Middle East peace conference, saying the situation in the region had developed in a “very negative” direction and could cause an “explosion” if allowed to escalate.

After the talks, Medvedev and Assad issued a statement that condemned Israeli settlements on occupied Arab land and called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The leaders had been expected to discuss Russian arms deliveries to Syria, but no reports about these talks, if they happened, appeared Tuesday. Israel is against Russian arms sales to Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday renewed sanctions against Syria for a year, saying Damascus still supported terrorist groups and was working to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The United States first applied sanctions in 2004.

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