Syria denies talks with US lawmaker on political detainees

A senior Syrian official: "Syria categorically refuses to discuss its internal affairs with foreigners"

Syria denied Tuesday that President Bashar Assad had recently discussed detained political prisoners with a visiting US lawmaker, saying Damascus does not discuss internal affairs with foreigners, the official news agency reported. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat, met with Assad on Sunday and said afterward the two discussed the issue of human rights in Syria, where hundreds of political prisoners and rights activists are held, according to local and international rights groups. The US lawmaker, who was on a two-day visit to Syria with Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said Assad told him that his government only imprisons opposition figures who are linked to foreigners and promised to release members of the so-called "Damascus Declaration." The declaration was signed by a group of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who urged the Syrian government to improve ties with Lebanon, a sensitive issue in Syria. Syria dismissed Kennedy's remarks Tuesday, saying Damascus would never discuss such issues with foreigners. "Syria categorically refuses to discuss its internal affairs with any foreign official," Syria's state news agency SANA quoted an unnamed official as saying. US - Syrian relations soured after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bombing. Washington pulled its ambassador out of the country over suspected Syrian involvement in the attack, which Damascus denies. The US has also criticized Syria for not doing enough to prevent militants from crossing its border into Iraq - although American officials have said recently that Damascus has stepped up its efforts. Relations appeared to warm briefly following Syria's attendance at a recent U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference, which was widely seen as an attempt to gain favor with Washington. But both sides have since lashed out at one another, each accusing the other of meddling in Lebanon, where the Western-backed government is locked in a political standoff with the pro-Syrian opposition. The US also disapproves of Damascus' support for anti-Israel terrorist groups and alliance with Iran.