Terrorist offices still open in Syria despite Powell's claim

Monday, May 5, 2003

Three Palestinian insurgency groups on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations remain active in Syria.

On Saturday, the United States reported that Syria had closed the offices of at least three Palestinian insurgency groups that appear on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. They were identified as Hamas, Jihad and the PFLP-GC.

"They did some closures," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said after meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

However, Western diplomatic sources said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command are operating as usual in Damascus. They said other groups on the State Department list of terrorist organizations were also open over the weekend.

"Nothing has changed," a Western diplomat who monitors insurgency groups in Damascus said. "There has been some activities that moved from one office to another."

"There was some warning to the three groups to lower their profile during the Powell visit," another diplomatic source said. "Other than that, nobody that I know has seen anything different."

During his three-hour meeting with Assad, Powell relayed a message from President George Bush that urged Assad to begin a new chapter in U.S.-Syrian relations after the fall of the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Assad was Saddam's leading ally and Syria helped transport hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons and military equipment for the war in Iraq.

"We want to cooperate with Syria in adapting to that strategic situation," he said. "We'll be watching very carefully."

U.S. officials also said Syria has been steadily removing troops from Lebanon. They said Syria has reduced its military presence in Lebanon from 30,000 to 15,000 soldiers over the last 18 months.

In Washington, a U.S. official who monitors Syria said Hamas, Jihad and the PFLP-GC confirmed that the organizations continue to operate in the Syrian capital. The official said some of the offices appeared to be closed for renovations.

"The organizations are still operating," the official said. "They continue to train and receive weapons and funding from Iran."

Representatives of several Palestinian groups also said they were continuing as usual. They said Syria had not asked them to suspend operations.

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