- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

From combined dispatches

President Bush yesterday upheld Israel’s right to self-defense after its air strike in Syria — prompted by a Palestinian suicide bombing — but urged both Israel and Syria to avoid escalating tensions.

In a fresh incident that heightened fears of conflict, gunfire erupted across the Israel-Lebanon border, killing one Israeli soldier.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, blamed the attack on Hezbollah, a guerrilla group active in south Lebanon.

But Hezbollah said in a one-sentence statement faxed to the Associated Press in Beirut that it was not involved in yesterday’s shootings.

“An Israeli soldier was killed tonight while on operational duty south of the Fatma gate, on the Israeli-Lebanese border,” an Israeli military spokesman said in a statement.

Mr. Bush said he had told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by telephone on Sunday that Israel should not feel constrained in defending itself, but denied giving a green light for the air raid near Damascus.

“I made it very clear to the prime minister, like I have consistently done, that Israel’s got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland,” Mr. Bush said in Washington.

“However, I said that it’s very important that any action Israel takes should avoid escalation and creating higher tensions,” he said.

The air strike Sunday on a suspected training camp for Palestinian militants was Israel’s deepest into Syria since the 1973 Middle East war. It followed a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 19 persons at a restaurant in the city of Haifa on Saturday, just before the solemn Yom Kippur fast day.

At Al-Dreij, the site of the Israeli strikes 15 miles northwest of Damascus, villagers yesterday swept up shattered glass and rubble from their homes.

The Ein Saheb camp — which included several one-room buildings made of concrete, a water tank and a swimming pool — was closed to reporters but could be seen nestled in a ravine of olive and fig trees from the village a few hundred yards away.

A resident of Al-Driej told the Associated Press he had inspected the camp shortly after the attack and found parts of Russian-made automatic rifles, which he gave to police.

The camp had been a military training center for the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, but an official from the group told AP it was abandoned seven years ago. The group is known to use Russian-made weapons, including Kalashnikov rifles.

In Damascus, the No. 2 man in Syria’s ruling Ba’ath party dismissed as “baseless” Israeli accusations that the camp had been used by Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group that claimed responsibility for the Haifa suicide bombing.

“The international community must condemn this aggression, make Israel face up to its responsibility and force it to stop beating the drums of war in the region,” said the assistant secretary general of the ruling Ba’ath party, Suleiman Gaddah.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the Syrians had also expressed their views at a meeting in Damascus of representatives of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council. The American representative at the meeting, Gene Cretz, “expressed our views right back,” he said.

“We’ve repeatedly made known our grave concerns about Syrian support for terrorist groups, including Palestinian groups, that are engaged in planning and directing terrorist action against Israel from Syrian territory. That remains our position,” he said.

Islamic Jihad official Abu Imad al-Rifai also denied the group had a base in Syria and told Reuters news agency that Israel will “pay a big price” if it goes after Palestinian targets outside Israel and the Palestinian territories.

But, he said in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, “I think our response will remain first and foremost inside Palestine by virtue of our presence inside Palestine and the presence of our military forces inside Palestine.” Islamic Jihad regards Israel as being part of Palestine.

A Lebanese security source had earlier said shots were fired from Israel into Lebanon and went over Lebanese cars on a road near the border. An Israeli army spokesman said: “The army did not attack any targets in Lebanon.”

Syria called an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting Sunday but the United States, which has a veto on the council, said it would not support a resolution that condemned the Israeli raid but made no mention of the suicide attack.

Russia, which also has veto power, said yesterday the Syrian resolution could pass if it were balanced.

Syria wanted an immediate vote, but no action was taken on the resolution yesterday.

In another development, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said yesterday he hopes to negotiate a quick truce with Israel but will not use force against Palestinian militants under any circumstances, despite U.S. demands for a clampdown on armed groups.

In setting policy, “I will not listen to the Americans. I will listen to our national rights,” Mr. Qureia said just hours after being installed as the head of an eight-member emergency Cabinet by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“We will not confront; we will not go for a civil war,” he said. “It’s not in our interest. It’s not in the interest of our people, and it’s not in the interest of the peace process.”

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