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EU says Mideast events make peace top priority

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said yesterday that events in Egypt and other Mideast countries make progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians even more crucial.

Ms Ashton spoke to reporters after a meeting in Munich of the so-called Quartet, comprised of the US, the United Nations, the EU and Russia, that was established in 2002 to facilitate the Middle East peace process.

"With the events we've witnessed in the region it's hugely important that we make progress on the Middle East peace process," Ms Ashton said.

Peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority broke down in September after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial construction freeze in the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged not to negotiate as long as the building continues.

The administration of President Barack Obama has been stepping up pressure on the two sides to resume talks.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, and the militant Islamic movement Hamas in Gaza have kept quiet about the turmoil in Egyptian cities.

Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace accord with Israel in 1979 and the government of President Hosni Mubarak has had a hand in placing pressure on Israel toward a settlement.

But the unrest is not spreading across all of the Middle East. In Syria, a weeklong online campaign has failed to galvanise the kinds of mass protests that have rocked Tunisia and Egypt. In fact, no one showed up over the past 48 hours for what were to be "days of rage" against the Syrian president's iron-fisted rule.

By yesterday afternoon, the number of plainclothes security agents stationed in key areas of the capital, Damascus, had begun to dwindle.

A host of factors -- including intimidation by security agents and President Bashar Assad's popular anti-Israel policies -- kept Syria quiet.

Syria has its own set of peculiarities that make it quite different from Egypt and Tunisia. A major difference is that Assad -- unlike leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan -- is not allied with the US, so he is spared the accusation that he caters to American demands.

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