ANKARA, Jan 6: Turkey and Syria issued a joint warning on Tuesday over moves that could damage the territorial integrity of post-war Iraq during a landmark visit here by Bashar al-Assad, the first Syrian president to visit the country.

"We agreed that it is a must to protect Iraq's territorial integrity... We condemned approaches that could endanger Iraq's territorial integrity," Assad said following talks with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Both countries are worried that the Iraqi Kurds could capitalize on their war-time alliance with the United States to push for autonomy in their homeland in northern Iraq and set an example for their kinsmen in neighboring Turkey and Syria.

Sezer echoed Assad's call to protect Iraq's unity, adding that stability should be restored in the increasingly turbulent country as soon as possible. "Turkey and Syria, as regional countries neighboring Iraq, are determined to efficiently pursue these objectives," he said.

Assad's three-day visit bears witness to improving ties between Turkey and Syria, former foes which nearly went to war in 1998 over Ankara's accusations that Damascus was backing Turkish Kurdish guerillas.

"We have moved together from an atmosphere of distrust to one of trust. We now have to change the atmosphere of instability in the region to one of stability," Assad said, describing his visit as 'historical.'

The two leaders witnessed the signing of three accords aimed at preventing double taxation in bilateral trade, encouraging mutual investments and cooperation in the tourism sector.

Bilateral ties hit an all-time low when Ankara threatened military action if Damascus continued to shelter Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) waging a separatist bloody campaign against the Turkish government.

Tension eased in October that year when Syria expelled Ocalan from his long-time safe haven and pledged to stop supporting his rebels under a security deal it signed with Turkey.

Turkey, a close ally of the United States and a Nato member, has pushed for closer ties with Syria since the US invasion of Iraq despite warnings from Washington that its cooperation with Damascus should be limited. Syria is also technically at war with Israel, Turkey's main ally in the region.

Ankara has offered on several occasions to mediate or to 'facilitate' contacts between the parties in the Middle East conflict. Assad recently offered to resume peace negotiations with Israel, four years after they broke down.-AFP

Updated Jan 07, 2004 12:00am

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