Top Egypt security delegation heads to Syria


CAIRO (AP) — A high level Egyptian security delegation left for Syria on Monday in a rare visit, Cairo airport officials said. The delegation's mission was not immediately clear.

Yasser Ali, who is spokesman for President Mohammed Morsi, denied the report. A senior security official said he had no knowledge about the delegation, but stopped short of an outright denial of the report.

The previously unannounced trip comes as Egypt leads a four-nation regional initiative trying to broker a solution to Syria's civil war. It is not known if the visit is related.

The airport officials said the delegation will be in Syria for two days. All officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to address the media.

Morsi, who came to office three months ago in the aftermath of the 2011 ousting of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising, is an outspoken critic of Syria's President Bashar Assad. Morsi has called on the Syrian president to learn from "recent history" and step down.

As part of his new push for a more active Egyptian foreign policy, Morsi launched an initiative announced last month to coordinate with Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia — the so-called "Islamic Quartet" — to end the civil war in Syria.

Morsi returned from a day-long visit to Turkey Sunday, where he discussed the Syrian conflict as well as bilateral relations.

Egypt has scaled back its diplomatic relations with the Assad's regime since February, when it withdrew its ambassador to Damascus.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia also have frosty relations with Damascus, but Iran is Syria's closest regional ally. Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all predominantly Sunni, while Iran is Shiite-led and Syria's regime is dominated by a Shiite offshoot.

So far, a U.N. and Arab League-led initiative have failed to resolve the conflict in Syria. Cease-fires have failed to take hold. Most rebels have little faith that the regime treats negotiations as anything more than a delaying tactic, and say that Assad must step down as a precondition for talks. The disunity of rebel factions has also hampered peace efforts.

The Egyptian initiative has produced a number of ministerial meetings between Egyptian and Turkish representatives and Iran, held in Cairo and on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month. But Saudi Arabia has abstained from attending the meetings.

Officials say they want to keep the discussions away from the media, and few details of those meetings have been made public.

One diplomat familiar with the meetings said there were suggestions to expand them to include opposition and possibly regime representatives. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the talks.

Egypt has independently been hosting meetings with the Syrian opposition. Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr has said that unifying the opposition is an important factor in resolving the conflict.

Presidential spokesman Ali said Egypt's only channel for dealing with Syria is that four-member regional group. He had earlier said that Egypt refuses any military intervention in Syria.

"Egypt's vision for a solution to the Syria problem is based on the necessity to pressure the current Syrian regime to go," Ali told reporters earlier Monday.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly's annual gathering of world leaders Monday, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that efforts by Syria and the world to end the 18-month war will fail unless Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya and others stop arming and financing the opposition and instead "encourage dialogue and renounce violence."