Mon, May 03, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Assad warns Israel against attacking Syria-based leaders

REUTERS , DAMASCUS, SYRIA

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned Israel that Damascus would consider any attempt to assassinate Syria-based leaders of militant Palestinian groups as aggression against Syria.

Targeting leaders of anti-Israel Palestinian groups in Syria would be "an aggression that will be handled as an aggression," Assad said in an interview with the Qatar-based Arab television station al-Jazeera aired on Saturday. He did not elaborate.

Israeli officials have vowed to kill officials of guerrilla groups responsible for "terror acts," one of the most prominent of whom is Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of the militant Islamist group Hamas, who lives in Syria.

Meshaal survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997.

"Even if Israel did not make a threat, the threat is always there. No one trusts Israel ... the threat has been there since Israel was created," Assad said.

"Israel expresses itself freely, not through the freedom of speech but rather through the freedom of killings," he said.

In the past six weeks Israel has assassinated Hamas's spiritual leader and co-founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and its Gaza leader Abdul-Aziz al-Rantissi.

Hamas, which has played a leading role in the three-and-a-half-year-old Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is sworn to the destruction of Israel and has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks.

The White House said on Friday it would impose sanctions on Syria soon for supporting terrorism and failing to stop guerrillas from entering Iraq.

Syria describes the militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups that it supports -- "terrorists" in Washington's eyes -- as freedom fighters. It says it has done all it can to help the US in its "war against terror" and to control its border with Iraq.

In his interview, Assad defended the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation forces and said it was legitimate "so long as it represents what the Palestinian people want. We do not have the right to evaluate it; only the Palestinians have that right."

He said there was no change in his country's longstanding position on the resumption of peace talks with the Jewish state.

"We have always said that we are ready to negotiate with Israel when the circumstances in Israel are suitable," he said.

Assad's remarks indicated Damascus was not waiting for a change of government in Israel to revive the talks, which broke down in 2000 over the future of the Golan Heights, Syrian land occupied by Israel since 1967.

"They [Israeli governments] are all the same ... Some kill Arabs and Palestinians and say `I am a messenger of peace' and some kill them and say `I am a messenger of war,'" Assad said.

He also criticized US President George W. Bush for his recent pledge to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel could keep some West Bank land and that Palestinian refugees should not expect to reclaim their homes in what is now Israel.

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