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Syrian leader reappears, weakening Arafat's status

A surprise television appearance by Syrian President Hafez Assad, hospitalized two weeks ago, has undercut Arab speculation that he is gravely ill.

The broadcast included no fresh details on the condition of President Assad, officially said to have had appendicitis. And despite the Damascus TV footage late Monday of his apparently energetic participation in a high-level Syrian political meeting, Mr. Assad has yet to meet any foreign visitors since his illness.

The broadcast set off street celebrations in the Syrian capital, with soldiers and security officers firing into the air to mark the occasion.

The usually more circumspect Beirut news media had, until Assad's TV appearance, ventured various gloomy scenarios concerning Mr. Assad's health - including, as late as Sunday morning, one newspaper report that he was in a coma.

A major effect of Assad's appearance could involve the question of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's future. Mr. Arafat has made it clear he is in no hurry to leave his Tripoli base as Syrian-backed rebels have demanded. Recent remarks suggested Arafat felt confident of his ability to stay put in part because he assumed Assad was gravely ill.

Talks including former Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami and Syrian and Saudi leaders continue in Damascus to work out details of last week's announced cease-fire of Palestinian fighting. But some Arab analysts here suspect a genuine recovery by Assad could mean renewed rebel and Syrian pressure on Arafat.

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