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MIDEAST TALKS MAY RESUME IN WEEKS

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Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Saturday that Israel and Syria would resume direct talks in Washington on making peace, and aides said this could happen within weeks.

Posing for photographers with Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria, Christopher gave no date for the resumption of direct, publicly acknowledged talks, which Syria broke off 10 months ago.But a senior U.S. official told Reuters the negotiations could resume "in the next couple of weeks . . . before the first of the year."

Christopher has previously indicated that the resumption of direct talks between the two parties would mark a significant new development in the peace process he is directly mediating. But on Saturday he said nothing dramatically new has happened.

"The parties are extremely serious about this. Nothing that has happened in the Middle East has caused them to lose seriousness. Indeed, it has deepened their commitment to the process," he said.

He noted that the United States, in addition to serving as a direct mediator between Jerusalem and Damascus, has also been managing other contacts between Israelis and Syrians that have taken place at various levels and will continue to do so.

The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that there "have been contacts in the region and Washington going on for quite some time" between Israelis and Syrians.

He said the two sides are "not coming back to formal public talks but rather to a variety of ways to exchange ideas on a variety of issues."

He would not disclose a venue for the new talks - except to say they would be in Washington - and refused to provide any other details.

Asked why there had been a decision to resume talks in Washington at this time, the official said: "Because the parties wanted to do it this way.

"What you can read into it is a seriousness of purpose and the belief of both parties that they need to work hard on some of the gaps. There was quite a bit of sniping in the press between Israel and Syria in recent weeks. That's not productive," he added.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Saturday welcomed Syria's agreement to resume informal peace talks with the Jewish state in Washington. "We would have liked other ways, but the fact of the readiness for the exchange of ideas is in my eyes positive because it is not formal and enables a free dialogue," he said.

Christopher has just returned from a Middle East trip and is trying to forge an agreement between Israel and Syria that centers on the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, which were seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.