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Delhi readies Syria team

New Delhi, April 15: After “deploring” US military action in Iraq through a parliamentary resolution, India has decided to send an official delegation to Syria — the country Washington accuses of harbouring key members of Saddam Hussein’s regime and of building weapons of mass destruction.

Syria has denied both charges, but is coming under increasing US pressure.

The decision to send a team led by R.M. Abhayankar, secretary (east) in the foreign ministry, to Damascus at this juncture has raised eyebrows both within and outside South Block.

Abhayankar and his teammates will also visit Turkey and Jordan to make an assessment of the situation in the region after Saddam’s fall. The trip is scheduled early next week.

The resolution passed by Parliament criticising the US war has already strained relations between New Delhi and Washington. The decision to engage with the Syrian regime will not go down well with the Bush administration either.

While some members of the Indian establishment argued that the trip to Syria could have been avoided, others said that since the US has shown little sensitivity to India’s concerns over Pakistan, Delhi should take steps in its national interest.

Another reason for sending Abhayankar to Syria could be Delhi’s inability to decide on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s official visit to Damascus. Vajpayee was due to visit Syria and some other countries in the region when it became clear that the US would attack Iraq and the trip had to be called off. By sending a senior diplomat, India wants to reassure Syria that it will continue to engage with the country despite the American charges.

India’s humanitarian aid to Iraq appears set to be put on hold. Delhi had announced a $20-million food and medicine package.

But the UN, through which the foodgrain will be routed, has said its warehouses are full. This means the 50,000 tonnes of wheat India plans to send will take some time to reach Iraq.

The medicines will also have to wait because India has not yet got a clear list of the drugs that are urgently needed from the International Committee of the Red Cross or WHO.

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