- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

TEL AVIV Syria has allowed hundreds of al Qaeda operatives, including senior commanders, to take refuge in Lebanon, according to a report by a veteran military correspondent of Israel's leading daily, Ha'aretz.
As many as 200 al Qaeda members have entrenched themselves in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilwa near the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, according to Ze'ev Schiff, one of Israel's most renowned security commentators.
The report, which cites unidentified intelligence officials, says Jordanian, Palestinian and Lebanese members of the group reached Lebanon via direct flights or after making stops in Damascus and Tehran.
If accurate, the report could damage Syria's relations with the United States, which has threatened to act against countries harboring al Qaeda members. Washington holds the group responsible for the September 11 attacks.
Syria shared information about al Qaeda with U.S. intelligence agencies in the months after the attacks.
Still, President Bush called in April for Syria which has exerted de facto control over Lebanon since the early 1990s "to decide on which side of the war against terror it is on."
Confirmation of the report "would seriously sour what had been a slight warming trend between the U.S. and Syria," said Warren Bass, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' special project on terrorism.
Immediately after September 11, he said, Syria "did seem concerned about getting stuck on the wrong side of the bright red line."
Palestinian military officials in Lebanon denied that al Qaeda members are in the refugee camp.
"It is baseless," Col. Abu Ali Tanios, head of Fatah military intelligence service, told United Press International. He said the report was meant to "create new disputes inside our camps."
Ha'aretz says the al Qaeda members tried to take over the refugee camp, an effort that sparked fighting there last month that left several dead.
Tensions are already high between Israel and Syria after an Israeli soldier died from wounds sustained Thursday when Hezbollah shelled military positions near the disputed Shabba Farms region. Yesterday, Hezbollah fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli aircraft near the border area.
"We've done everything to restrain Syria via international pressure," Israeli Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said on public television. "If there isn't calm in the region, ultimately we will have to act."
David Satterfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, attempted to defuse the tension yesterday after a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, UPI reported.
"All sides should do everything possible to ensure that calm prevails and [to] avoid escalation and provocation," Mr. Satterfield said. "That's the U.S. message."
A terrorism Web site maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations says Syria supports Hezbollah but has been hostile to al Qaeda. But Ha'aretz says that al Qaeda and Hezbollah officials held talks in 1996 in Sudan, and that the contacts probably were made with the knowledge of Syrian intelligence.

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