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BEIRUT — Syria's longtime Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, a career diplomat who became one of the country's most prominent faces to the outside world during the uprising against President Bashar Assad, died on Monday. He was 79.

Al-Moallem, who served as ambassador to Washington for nine years, starting in 1990 during Syria's on-and-off peace talks with Israel, was a close confidant of Assad known for his loyalty and hard-line position against the opposition.

A soft spoken, jovial man with a dry sense of humor, al-Moallem was also known for his ability to defuse tensions with a joke.

During the current crisis, he often held news conferences in Damascus detailing the Syrian government's position. Unwavering in the face of international criticism, he repeatedly vowed that the opposition, which he said was part of a Western conspiracy against Syria for its anti-Israel stances, would be crushed.

The state-run SANA news agency reported his death, without immediately offering a cause.

Born to a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus in 1941, al-Moallem attended public schools in Syria and later traveled to Egypt, where he studied at Cairo University, graduating in 1963 with a bachelor's degree in economics.

He returned to Syria and began working at the foreign ministry in 1964, rising to the top post in 2006.

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