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Syria denies secret contacts with Israel

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- Syria has denied Israeli reports that it has reached an understanding of peace with Israel during secret negotiations.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry official told United Press International on condition of anonymity that these reports are "completely baseless and untrue."

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Israel's Ha'aretz daily reported Tuesday that Israeli and Syrian representatives had reached certain political understandings as an introduction to a peace accord after two years of secret talks with the knowledge of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The paper said these contacts began in September 2004 in Europe and ended last July. It reported that a document of understanding calls for the two rival states to sign a declaration of principles. After finalizing the implementation of their commitments, Syria and Israel would sign a peace treaty.

Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries that have signed peace accords with the Jewish state.

Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa has on repeated occasions stressed his government's readiness to resume negotiations with Israel from the point they stopped in 2000. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected the offer, demanding talks without preconditions.

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