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Omani FM meets Assad in rare Syria visit

MUSCAT: Oman`s top diplomat met Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus on Sunday, Muscat said, in the Gulf official`s second visit to the war-wracked country since conflict broke out in 2011.

Assad met with Oman`s state minister for foreign affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah to discuss bilateral relations and regional security, the sultanate`s foreign ministry said in a statement.

It added that Abdullah also met with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem.

Oman is one of the few Arab states to have maintained ties with Damascus over the past eight years.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 for its deadly crackdown on an uprising against Assad`s rule, and fellow Arab countries, including Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia, have supported the opposition.

Oman`s Sultan Qaboos adheres to a strict policy of non-interference in regional affairs, maintaining relations with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran a key backer of Assad.

Abdullah visited Damascus in 2015, Syria`s official SANA news agency reported at the time, to discuss ways to `resolve the crisis in Syria`.

During a visit to Oman last year, Syria`s Muallem praised Muscat for taking `supportive positions towards Syria at various Arab and international forums`, the state-run Oman News Agency reported.

Syria`s once rocky ties with the region are on the rebound.

The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus late last year af ter years of closure, and Syria`s relations with Bahrain and Jordan have also improved.

But Saudi Arabia remains hostile to Assad, who has made a military comeback with military support from Russia since 2015, clawing back almost two-thirds of the country.

Syria`s multi-fronted war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began with the repression of anti-governmentprotestsin2011.TheSyrianPresidency said Assad discussed regional and international affairs with Oman`s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, as well as `economic and political challenges imposed on the region.

Syria`s state news agency SANA said the Omani official met his Syrian counterpart Walid alMoallem to discuss regional af f airs. Al-Moallem visited Oman in March 2018.

Oman`s foreign ministry tweeted that Alawi delivered a message from the sultan of Oman and talked about boosting efforts `to restore stability and security in the region.` Oman has good relations with Western countries as well as Iran a key ally of the Syrian government and has often played a mediating role in regional disputes.

Most Arab countries in the Gulf supported the opposition against Assad. Arab countries have sanctioned Damascus and condemned Assad for using overwhelming military force and failing to negotiate with the opposition.-Agencies