DAMASCUS: President Bashar Al-Assad receives his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir upon his arrival at the airport in the Syrian capital on Sunday. – AFP

AMMAN: Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus on Sunday, the first such visit by an Arab leader since the start of the Syrian conflict, Syrian state media said. President Bashar Al-Assad welcomed him at the airport, official photos showed. Many Arab countries have shunned Assad since the conflict that began early in 2011 after protests calling for his downfall swept Syria. State news agency SANA said later the two leaders held talks in the presidential palace about developments in the region and in Syria.

Assad was quoted as saying his country would remain committed to its “Arab identity” despite the conflict in which Syria had accused some Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, of fuelling it by arming rebels seeking to overthrow Assad’s rule. The two leaders discussed the “situations and crises faced by many Arab countries”, the Syrian presidency said. They also stressed the need to build “new principles for inter-Arab relations based on the respect of the sovereignty of countries and non-interference in internal affairs”.

The Arab League had suspended Syria’s seat in Nov 2011 in response to the Syrian government’s violent attacks on pro-democracy protests. Although many Arab countries have closed their embassies or downgraded their ties with Damascus, there have been growing calls in the Arab world in recent months to normalize ties with Syria and give it back its seat in the Arab League.

A Sudanese official late Sunday said that Bashir had returned to Khartoum “from an important visit” to the Syrian capital. The Sudanese president last visited the Syrian capital in 2008 for the Arab League summit which was held there that year. Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011. The International Criminal Court has issued warrants for Bashir’s arrest over genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the Sudanese leader jetted into Jordan last year to attend an annual Arab League summit, and Amman did not arrest him. – Agencies