Syrian FM Muallem rushed to hospital

A source told AFP that key Syrian diplomat Walid al-Muallem may undergo open-heart bypass surgery

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Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem underwent a successful heart surgery at a Beirut hospital, Syria’s state media said on Friday.

The top diplomat was rushed to the American University of Beirut Medical Center in Lebanon and underwent tests for a suspected blocked coronary artery, Lebanese security officials and a lawmaker said.

The 73-year-old diplomat, who led the government’s negotiating team at the failed Geneva peace talks this year, “was admitted to the American University Hospital in Beirut under tight security on Thursday evening,” a source told AFP.

The source had said it was “very possible” that doctors will carry out “open-heart bypass surgery.”

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who is in his 70s, is known for his hard-line stance against the opposition and is a close confidant of President Bashar Assad. It is not clear if the overweight al-Muallem has had heart problems in the past.

Lebanese lawmaker Assem Qanso, who visited al-Muallem before the operation, told reporters outside the hospital that Syria's top diplomat is “in stable condition” and would undergo an operation, Associated Press reported.

“Some of his arteries are blocked. He will undergo an operation and God willing it will be good. It is not dangerous,” Qanso, a close ally of the Syrian government, told The Associated Press in brief comments.

The security officials said that al-Muallem walked slowly and unassisted when he arrived at the hospital. Officials at the hospital - which has treated several ranking officials from Assad's government in the past - refused to confirm that al-Muallem was being treated there, saying they give no such information to “third parties.”

Lebanese police and plainclothes officers deployed outside the hospital in Beirut. Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, entered the facility earlier Friday morning, presumably to visit al-Muallem. He did not speak to reporters.

Al-Muallem led the Syrian government delegation to United Nations-hosted peace talks with the opposition in Switzerland earlier this year.

The news comes nearly four months before President Bashar al-Assad’s seven-year term as president officially expires.
A career diplomat, he served as ambassador to Washington for nine years, starting in 1990 during Syria's on-and-off peace talks with Israel.

In January, at the start of Syria's peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon repeatedly asked al-Muallem to step away from the podium when he exceeded his time limit while giving his speech.

“You live in New York. I live in Syria,” al-Muallem snapped at the time, ignoring Ban's appeal to conclude his opening remarks.

Presidential elections

Meanwhile, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi blasted the U.N.-Arab League mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, for saying he warned the Syrian government if it goes ahead with scheduled presidential elections, the opposition will probably refuse to participate in a new round of peace talks.

Al-Zoubi told Syrian state television that Brahimi “forgot that he is a mediator between the legitimate Syrian government and the opposition” and he should respect his job as a mediator.

“This interference in Syrian affairs is totally rejected,” al-Zoubi said. “Brahimi has no right to implement America's policy in Syria and the decision to hold elections is decided by Syrian authorities and no one can stop these constitutional steps in the country.”
Syrian officials say the presidential elections will be held on time, and Assad has suggested he would run again. The poll must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad's second seven-year term ends on July 17.

On Thursday, the country's parliament approved an electoral law opening the door - at least in theory - to other potential contenders besides Assad.

Also Friday, Syrian TV reported that troops ambushed a group of gunmen near the town of Talkalakh near the border with Lebanon, killing about two dozen of them. It showed footage of dead men, some with rifles next to their bodies.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that members of the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant completed their withdrawal from the northwestern province of Idlib and mountainous areas of the coastal region of Latakia. It said the gunmen moved to the northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa.

Islamic State fighters have been fighting members of other rival groups in northern Syria since early January. Activists say the clashes killed more than 3,300 people.

Syria's uprising, which began with largely peace protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones. Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role among fighters, dampening the West's support for the rebellion to overthrow Assad.

[With AFP and AP]

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