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Kerry on Gulf tour pledges backing for Syria rebels

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Washington will work to "empower" Syria's opposition, its top diplomat said Monday in Riyadh where he held discussions on Iran's nuclear ambitions and met with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first tour of the Gulf since taking office, stressed that there was no question of arming the opposition, even as his Saudi counterpart insisted on the right of Syrians to self-defence.

The United States will continue to work with its "friends to empower the Syrian opposition," Kerry told reporters in Riyadh during a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Asked about reports of arms being sent to the rebels from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Kerry replied: "The moderate opposition has the ability to make sure that the weapons are getting to them and not to the wrong hands."

However, he added, "there is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not fall in the wrong hands."

The US has so far refused to arm rebels locked in a two-year war against President Bashar al-Assad's loyalists.

Several oil-rich monarchies of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have supported the rebellion against Assad, a staunch ally of their regional arch-foe Iran.

The six US allies however are dissatisfied at the refusal by President Barack Obama's administration to arm Syrian rebels and its perceived lenient attitude towards Tehran, analysts say.

Kerry said his discussions with Gulf officials had also covered ongoing talks between world powers and Iran on its controversial nuclear programme.

Talks with Iran "will not go on for the sake of talks," he said. "Talks cannot become an instrument for delay that in the end makes the situation more dangerous. So there is a finite amount of time."

World powers leading negotiations with Iran to rein in its suspect nuclear programme concluded another round of talks in Kazakhstan last week, after putting forward a proposal to ease biting sanctions if Tehran halts its uranium enrichment.

"Saudi Arabia supports the efforts to resolve the crisis diplomatically," said the Saudi foreign minister. "We hope that the negotiations will result in putting an end to this problem... the negotiations cannot go on forever."

During his flurry of meetings in Riyadh on Monday, Kerry also held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz but there were no plans for a meeting with King Abdullah, officials said.

The US diplomat also met over lunch with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who flew unexpectedly into the Saudi capital on Sunday night.

US officials said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been made aware of the unscheduled meeting.

Kerry's tour does not include Israel or the Palestinian territories. US President Barack Obama is due to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah during a visit on March 20-22.

Abbas "will present the Palestinian point of view to the new US administration ahead of Obama's visit," Palestinian envoy in Riyadh Jamal al-Shawbaki told the official Voice of Palestine radio before the lunch meeting.

Abbas, in his first meeting with Kerry, will also "highlight Israeli violations in Jerusalem, settlements, and the issue of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike," said Shawbaki.

Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have been deadlocked for more than two years.

Abbas wants to renew peace talks in tandem with a freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and in east Jerusalem.

After winding up the Saudi leg of his tour later Monday, Kerry will head to Abu Dhabi and later to Qatar.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130304/kerry-gulf-tour-pledges-backing-syria-rebels