'Mubarak shuns summit to avoid Assad'

Arab summit addresses economic ties, Israel's role in proposed union of Mediterranean nations.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A mini-summit of Arab leaders opened in the Libyan capital on Tuesday but Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak stayed away from the venue to avoid an encounter with his Syrian counterpart amid ongoing friction between the two. The Tripoli gathering was initiated by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to work out an Arab response to a French proposal to set up a European, Middle Eastern and North African strategic bloc for Mediterranean nations. Though the proposed union would be focused on economic ties, it was also expected to involve discussions on issues such as human rights, illegal immigration and Middle East peace. French President Nicolas Sarkozy foresees the proposed union consisting of 39 partners - the 27-nation EU, plus a dozen on the Mediterranean's southern shores, from Morocco to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Gadhafi called for Tuesday's Arab summit to discuss Israel's role in the proposed union. Initial Arab reactions to include Israel in the union have varied with some countries such as Algeria and Syria - which do not recognize the Jewish state - balking at the idea. Egypt and Jordan, which have peace treaties with Israel, have not said they have a problem with Israeli membership. But what grabbed media attention at the summit's opening was the absence of Mubarak, a regional heavyweight in his almost 30-year-long rule. In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement that, "in view of the President's engagements and tight schedule, he cannot participate in this summit." But other officials said Mubarak dodged the summit to avoid a reconciliation with Syria's Bashar Assad. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak to the media. Relations between Egypt and Syrian have been strained since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah boycotted an annual Arab summit in Syria in March. Sunni Muslim powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia accuse Syria of backing the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Several Arab governments including Kuwait and Libya have been mediating between Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh, but their efforts have so far been shunned by Mubarak and Abdullah. Assad was participating in the meeting in Tripoli, along with the presidents of Tunisia and Algeria and the prime ministers of Morocco and Mauritania, which also has diplomatic relations with Israel.