CAIRO Saudi Arabia has stayed away for a second time from a meeting of Egypt, Turkey and Iran to discuss the Syria crisis, the Egyptian foreign minister said on Wednesday, hampering Cairo's initiative to find a regional solution to the conflict.
Saudi Arabia attended a preparatory session in Cairo on September 10 of officials from the four states but Riyadh has missed two ministerial meetings since. It has not announced any reason but Riyadh and Tehran have long tussled for regional influence.
Ever since Egypt announced plans for the initiative in August, diplomats have questioned the ability of a group that includes both Syria's ally Iran and three opponents of President Bashar al-Assad to reach any substantive agreement.
"We are still at the stage of exploring positions and there will be other meetings to perhaps discuss more precise suggestions," Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr told the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat.
Asked whether Saudi Arabia's absence from the meeting in New York and continuing differences undermined the group's work, the minister said: "I believe the elements to continue exist.
"We inform Saudi Arabia about everything going on," he said.
The minister said all members of the group agreed on the need for change in Syria, where rebels are fighting Assad in an 18-month-old uprising, but not how that would be achieved.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all said Assad must leave power. Iran has said Syria's problems must be solved by dialogue and elections.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal underwent surgery in August, keeping him away from official business. But he has been represented at other international meetings by Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah.
The second meeting of the group, a ministerial gathering in Cairo which Riyadh also missed, was held on September 17.
Amr did not give a date for the latest meeting with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, though al-Hayat said it was held while he was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
(Writing by Edmund Blair)