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N. Korea parliament chief, Syrian premier discuss better relations

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A high-level North Korean official held talks Sunday with Syria's Prime Minister Naji Otari on ways to improve cooperation between the two countries, state media said.

The visit by Choe Thae Bok, the speaker of North Korea's parliament, comes amid lingering suspicions that North Korea may be providing nuclear assistance to Syria.

Israeli warplanes struck a target in Syria on Sept. 6, and Western news media have quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying the strike hit some sort of nuclear facility linked to North Korea, which is now in the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

On Friday, The Washington Post cited American officials as saying the site had characteristics of a small but substantial nuclear reactor similar to North Korea's facility. Syria said an unused military building was hit.

North Korea provides missile technology to Syria but has strongly denied accusations that it spreads its nuclear expertise beyond its borders. Syria also has denied receiving any North Korean nuclear help or embarking on any nuclear program.

The Syrian Arab News Agency said that Choe told Otari during the talks that North Korea "stands by Syria in facing the challenges and supports its legitimate efforts to return the occupied Syrian Golan." The strategic Golan Heights was captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The two officials discussed "mutual cooperation between the two countries and ways of developing them in the economic, commercial and social fields," SANA said.

The meeting came a day after Choe held separate talks in Damascus with Abdullah al-Ahmar and Mohammed Saeed Bkheitan, both assistant heads of the ruling Baath Party command.