China says not yet formally invited to Syria meeting

BEIJING Fri Feb 17, 2012 4:24am EST

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Friday it had yet to receive a formal invitation to a meeting of international powers in Tunis next week to discuss the Syria crisis and so could not say if it would attend.

China and Russia infuriated Western and Arab states this month by blocking a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit amid his government's violent crackdown on opposition groups.

The February 24 meeting in Tunis is part of a newly created "Friends of Syria Group" aimed at trying to find a way of peacefully ending the conflict.

It will be attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European and Arab League foreign ministers.

"The final details for this meeting have not yet been laid out. According to my knowledge, China has not yet received a formal invitation, so I'm afraid at this point it is hard to say whether China will send a representative," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a daily news briefing.

The comments came as Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun was due in Syria on Friday as part of Beijing's own diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.

The state-run China News Service said Zhai would meet both government and opposition representatives. Last week, Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing.

The U.N. General Assembly ratcheted up the pressure on Assad on Thursday by overwhelmingly approving a resolution that endorses an Arab League plan calling for him to step aside.

The resolution, similar to one Russia and China vetoed in the Security Council on February 4, received 137 votes in favor, 12 against and 17 abstentions, although three countries said their votes failed to register on the electronic board.

Russia and China were among those opposing the resolution, which was drafted by Saudi Arabia and submitted by Egypt on behalf of Arab states. Unlike in the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly, but its decisions lack the legal force of council resolutions.

"We believe the actions of all parties in the international community on the Syria issue should be conducive to resolving the tense situation in Syria ... and preventing the further complication of the matter," Liu said.

In a commentary on Friday, the official newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, the People's Daily, repeated that any attempts at armed intervention or forced regime change were the wrong way of dealing with Syria.

"Once that road is gone down ... not only will it complicate the Syrian issue, it will also shake the basic norms of international relations," it wrote.

The author used the pen name "Zhong Sheng," which can mean "voice of China" and is often used to give Beijing's position on foreign policy.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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