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May 04, 2003

Syria cool towards Powell

The NY Times fronts a piece today suggesting Syria beginning to come around to Powell's position. Clearly, closing down an info office is not the same as stopping terror attacks and allowing terrorists to use southern Lebanon for base of operations
Syria has responded coolly to US demands for bringing peace to the region, saying Israel must first end its occupation.

In the first official statement on US Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Damascus, Syria said Arabs had given their all for peace and Washington must put pressure on Israel.

It made no mention of a key demand by Mr Powell - that Syria shuts down the Damascus-based offices of hardline Palestinian groups.

And several militant groups shrugged off Mr Powell's comments and said it was business as usual in their offices.

This is just talk, it's a storm in a cup because we are merely media offices
Abu Jihad Talaat of Islamic Jihad

The statement on Syrian state radio said the talks between President Bashar al-Assad and Mr Powell had been "constructive, frank and positive".

But it added that peace could only be achieved if Israel withdrew from all Arab lands it has occupied since the 1967 war and guaranteed the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Syria said the United States was "capable of deterring the aggressor and putting international efforts on the right track in order to achieve a just and comprehensive peace".

Lebanon has also reportedly rebuffed a US demand that it replaces Hezbollah fighters on the Israeli border with government forces.

An-Nahar newspaper said President Emile Lahoud told Powell on his visit to Beirut that Hezbollah was recognised as a "legal political party" whose guerrilla war helped end Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

There was no confirmation of this from government sources.


Several militant Palestinian groups said on Sunday they were operating normally, despite Mr Powell's pressure on Syria and Lebanon to shut down their offices.

"This is just talk, it's a storm in a cup because we are merely media offices," Abu Jihad Talaat of Islamic Jihad told Reuters news agency.

Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official speaking from Lebanon, said: "The Americans know well that our presence is part of the Palestinian presence in Syria and Lebanon and that it's not voluntary.

"It is forced, because of the occupation of our land and the expulsion of Palestinians (in the 1948 war)."

And Marwan Abou Sami, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said the groups had not been officially told to move their offices.

Israeli officials expressed doubts that Syria would crack down on militant groups.

One foreign ministry spokesman told AFP news agency: It's a good step by the United States to try to put an end to this. The future will tell but I have my doubts."