The U.S. has lifted an advisory warning American travelers of security concerns in Syria, officials said Saturday, as Washington tries to boost ties with a country seen as key to peace in the region.
However, Syria remains on a U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism, a designation made in 1979 because of suspicions that Syria collaborates with Iran in supplying munitions to radical Islamist groups for use against Israel.
The country also remains under U.S. sanctions, which President Barack Obama renewed in May. First imposed by former President George W. Bush, the sanctions cite Syrian support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other activities including efforts to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq.
Earlier this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that uranium particles found at a Syrian desert facility bombed three years ago by Israel suggest possible covert nuclear activity at the site.
That view added weight to Western concerns that the site was a nearly finished reactor with the ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
The IAEA also called on Damascus to give inspectors unrestrained access to sites beyond those covered by the nonproliferation agreement.
On Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem dismissed the new IAEA report, and reiterated Damascus' refusal to allow inspectors unfettered access to check out possible covert sites.
"We are committed to the nonproliferation agreement, and we let inspectors in within this agreement," al-Moallem told reporters. "But regarding other requests that don't fall with this agreement, we will not go beyond it."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. remained concerned about Syria's nuclear activity but stood by a decision to nominate a career diplomat to become the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005.
"We are going to have an ambassador there who will engage Syria on the full range of issues, those areas where we think there's opportunity for cooperation and those areas where we have concerns about Syria's ongoing activity," he told reporters Friday in Washington.
Washington's recent overtures to Syria coincide with rising administration disagreement with Iran and a U.S. effort to unite the Arab world in opposition to the regime in Tehran.
Obama has made changing America's image in the Middle East a priority of his first year and announced this week plans to name a new ambassador. Washington withdrew its last ambassador following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many blamed on Syria. Syria has denied involvement.
A spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Tracy Roberts Pounds, also said the U.S. has lifted the travel warning for Syria.
"After carefully assessing the current situation in Syria, we determined that circumstances didn't merit extending the travel warning," she said.
Syria's foreign minister welcomed the U.S. decision and said "both sides will start taking practical steps" to improve bilateral relations.
"We are willing to see a real development in these relations and from our side we will do what we have to," al-Moallem said. He did not specify what kind of steps Syria would take.
The travel warning, in place since September 2006 when armed assailants attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, cited possible threats to safety and security and warned U.S. travelers to be vigilant when visiting Syria.
Syria remains a key to establishing peace with Israel, which still occupies the strategic Golan Heights, captured from Damascus in the 1967 war. The Syrians want a strong U.S. hand in Mideast peacemaking to regain that territory.
Reflecting the rising regional tensions, Syria's Prime Minister Naji al-Otari warned Israel Saturday that any new Mideast war would be catastrophic for the region and beyond.
For weeks, Israel has traded some of the sharpest words in years with Syria and another key adversary on its northern border, the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Al-Otari spoke to reporters Saturday after meeting with visiting French Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
Syria and France also agreed Saturday to extend a 2008 contract for the sale of 14 European Airbus jets to modernize Syria's aging fleet, giving the Toulouse, France-based Airbus another chance to get approval from Washington to sell the jets to Syria.
The U.S. has blocked the sale of European Airbus aircraft to Syria because they use American components.
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