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Monday, June 12, 2000, updated at 14:49(GMT+8)

Bashar al-Assad Consolidates Hold on Succession

Bashar al-Assad and his supporters have moved quickly to consolidate his succession to the Syrian presidency as the nation prepares for a massive display of grief over the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.

Bashar, only 34-years-old and relatively inexperienced in politics, was promoted from colonel to lieutenant-general and named new head of the armed forces on Sunday by Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who is acting president under the constitution.

Senior army officers, led by Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas and chief-of-staff Ali Aslan, met Bashar to pledge their loyalty, officials said after the appointment.

Hafez al-Assad died on Saturday aged 69 after three decades in power.

Bashar was named to succeed his father as armed forces chief hours after the ruling Baath Party unanimously nominated him for the post of president.

Officials said parliament would meet on June 25 to approve the nomination and set the date for a referendum in which voters will be asked to accept or reject him as president.

U.S. President Bill Clinton phoned Bashar on Sunday to express his condolences. An official Syrian source quoted Bashar as telling Clinton he would pursue his father's aims of achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

The source said the American leader had also expressed his readiness to work for peace in the region.

While the succession moved ahead, plans were announced for Tuesday's funeral of the "Great Lion" whose name had become synonymous with modern Syria.

Foreign dignitaries, including French President Jacques Chirac and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, were scheduled to attend.

While the official ceremony at a palace on a hill overlooking Damascus will give a chance for dignitaries to pay their last respects, the climax is likely to come as his body is taken to the mountain village of Qardaha where he began his climb from poverty to power.

Plans call for his body to be moved from the presidential palace at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Tuesday to the Palace of the People, a huge complex atop a hill overlooking Damascus that Assad used for state functions but rarely stayed in.

His body will lie in state for five hours and will then be flown to an airport near his home village, which lacked even a paved road to the coast when Assad was born.

After prayers, he is to be buried in the family cemetery, probably next to his eldest son Basel whose death in a 1994 car accident came as a severe blow.

It was only after the death of Basel, the first heir apparent, that Assad turned to Bashar, who was studying in Britain to become an eye doctor, to take a role in government.

Parliament on Saturday amended the constitution to pave the way for Bashar's appointment by reducing the minimum age for the president to 34 from 40.

Bashar has a reputation for honesty and modesty and is best known for his anti-corruption campaign. But foreign interest is centred on his views on peace with Israel.

A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office said he told his cabinet a new epoch was dawning: "We are facing a different Middle East which we will have to study."

Barak spoke with Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah about the implications for the region. He said Israel had always sought peace.

"(Israel) will continue along this line with the new leadership that will emerge in Syria, while standing firm on its vital interests," the statement quoted Barak as saying.

Proof that Vice-President Khaddam had taken on the role of acting president appeared when he signed the constitutional amendment lowering the presidential age requirement.

Khaddam, who served Assad for more than 25 years, and Second Vice President Zuheir Masharqa had stayed out of sight since Assad's death.

The weeks before his death were marked by unprecedented signals that Assad was no longer protecting the old guard, which had been seen as opposed to the rise of his son.

Bashar has termed corruption the biggest impediment to Syria's development.

Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Zu'bi committed suicide last month after being sent to trial on corruption charges. Several senior officials have been arrested or sacked and Arab newspapers reported last week that former army chief Hikmat Chehabi was also a target.

Syria's official press mourned Assad and backed Bashar to succeed him.

The streets of Damascus were quiet as groups of mourners gravitated to the presidential palace and the hospital where Assad's body lay. Republican Guard units blocked roads to the hilltop palace and the hospital.

Mourners, many in tears, chanted Islamic slogans and vowing support to Bashar.

"Our beloved has gone. I came to bid him farewell," Thuraya Mohammad said outside the hospital as tears streamed down her face.

She kissed a picture of Assad and called on women around her to weep: "Why you are not crying? The great lion has gone!"

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Bashar al-Assad and his supporters have moved quickly to consolidate his succession to the Syrian presidency as the nation prepares for a massive display of grief over the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.

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