Blair visits Syria for talks about war on Taliban

Tuesday 30 October 2001 23.20

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has arrived in Syria for talks with President Bashar Assad on the Middle East peace process. Mr Blair will also have talks on the war against terrorism.

Mr Blair risked controversy by starting a Middle East diplomatic mission with a visit to Syrian capital Damascus. Syria is the state accused by Israel, the United States and others of supporting extremist groups opposed to the peace process in the region.

Earlier today, Mr Blair tackled growing criticism of the bombing campaign against Afghanistan head-on. He said, however, that those who raised doubts in a democracy were not appeasers or faint-hearts.

Mr Blair, speaking to the Welsh National Assembly in Cardiff, made an effort to reassure those who have voiced criticism that the international war against terrorism was just and had to be fought.

Mr Blair declared that there was now a flood of evidence proving that Osama bin Laden was guilty of 11 September atrocities.

An opinion poll in today's Guardian newspaper suggests that British public support for the Anglo-American campaign is dropping. Today's ICM poll shows support for military action down 12% in the past two weeks. And, while two thirds of the British public still back that action, over half of those questioned want a pause in the bombing to allow aid convoys into Afghanistan.

Mr Blair warned that this is not a conventional conflict. He said that the exact nature of any future ground operations might have to remain secret. "I said a few days ago that now would be the testing time. People want results, they want them as fast as possible.

"They realise the formidable challenges posed by any action in Afghanistan. They worry about civilian casualties. They are anxious about the refugee crisis as winter approaches. They wonder what comes after the conflict.

"All these concerns deserve to be answered. No one who raises doubts is an appeaser or a faint-heart. We are a democracy, strong enough to have doubts raised even at a time of war and wise enough to be able to respond to them.

However, in defence of the attacks in Afghanistan, Mr Blair said that thousands of people were killed in cold blood on 11 September in the worst terrorist attacks the world has ever seen. Mr Blair said that barely anyone disputes the fact that those responsible were the Al-Qaeda network reared by Osama bin Laden. He added that, according to the latest evidence they have, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are virtually a merged organisation.

He restated the coalition's aims of using air power, ground operations as and when necessary, support to the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban regime elements to destroy the Al-Qaeda network and topple the Taliban regime. He said that it is a battle to allow Afghans themselves to re-take control of their country.

In an incident outside the Assembly building, police were seen manhandling anti-war protesters. Police said that they wanted to move the protesters from the front entrance of the building and denied that any arrests were made.