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May 20, 2003

Radical Palestinian Groups Close Offices

Once again, found at
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Doorbells and phones went unanswered at the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups the United States accuses of terrorism. Instead of veteran campaigners ready to rail against Israel for hours, visitors were greeted by posters of Palestinian ``martyrs'' on the walls outside - and silence.

All signs pointed to what neither the Palestinians nor the Syrians will acknowledge: Syria has bowed to U.S. pressure and curbed the radicals it has hosted for years.

Reached at home Tuesday, Ahmed Jibril, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, confirmed that his group and nine others have closed their Damascus offices, but refused to say why.

Jibril, who usually can be found holding forth on the Palestinian cause and Israel at his group's downtown Damascus office, would only refer a reporter to his assertion last week that Syria had not asked him to close, but that he would be ready to ``meet the Syrian demands if such demands are useful for Syrian policy.''

Leading Palestinian exile Khaled al-Fahoum, who first reported the closures Monday, said Syria imposed no pressure, but the Palestinian factions had acted out of concern for ``Syria's stability and security'' amid tensions in the region and U.S. accusations against Syria.

At a news conference late Monday, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa was asked if his government had closed the Palestinian offices.

``This is a Palestinian affair, not Syrian,'' he said.

It would be humiliating for either Syria or the Palestinians to acknowledge having bowed to pressure from Washington, but they may feel they have little choice. [more]