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Hamas leaders in Syria go underground after threats

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hamas leaders in Damascus, who have operated in the Syrian capital with secrecy for the past year, appear to have gone deeper underground after Israeli threats to target them in retaliation for recent suicide bombings in Israel.

Hamas claimed responsibility Thursday for the Aug. 31 twin suicide bombings in the southern Israeli desert city of Beersheba that killed 16 people. Israeli officials began focusing their warnings on Syria and Hamas leaders in Damascus, though Hamas officials said all attacks are planned and carried out by operatives in the Palestinian territories.

Reaching them, once possible with a knock on the door or phone call became a cloak-and-dagger affair mediated by aides and requiring a drive to a mystery location.

In a May interview with Khaled Mashaal, the political bureau head, a reporter was driven by Hamas activists around the city to a safe house in an unmarked building. Mashaal appeared later for the interview and left before the reporter, who was again driven around town before being handed back his cellular phone.

At another interview recently with Mashaal's deputy Mousa Abu Marzouk, a reporter also was driven around town to a safe house.

In the past few days, that has not been possible either, at least for now as Israel turns up the rhetoric against Syria and Hamas.

Mashaal did appear in public Thursday in Syria, when he was among 50,000 people attending the funeral of top Sunni Muslim cleric Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro.

On Sunday, the Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat quoted diplomatic sources in Amman as saying Mashaal and other Hamas political leaders left the Syrian capital after the Israeli threats, some to neighboring Lebanon and others for Qatar, where they had lived in the past.

Osama Hamdan, Hamas' Lebanon representative, declined to confirm or deny the report. He said Hamas has media and political presence wherever Palestinian refugees are present. There are about 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, where Syria is the main power broker, and about the same number in Syria.

Mashaal, the group's highest-ranking leader after Israel's assassination of founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March, and Abu Marzouk, his deputy who was indicted last month in the United States for raising funds for a terrorist organization, have been living in Damascus for several years.

Hamas has operated media offices and held rallies in the Syrian capital. But the group and other militants were forced to keep silent after Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Damascus in May 2003, with a warning to President Bashar Assad to rein in or expel the militants such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah or face tough U.S. sanctions.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad closed their Damascus office as a result, and militant leaders made statements only while visiting neighboring Lebanon, where Syria holds sway. Since Israel's assassination of Yassin, Hamas leaders slowly have ended their silence, making more public comments even as they made their movements more careful and secret.

Late last year, Israeli planes struck an Islamic Jihad training camp outside Damascus, a day after a suicide bomber blew up a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa, killing 21. The United States imposed sanctions on Syria for not doing enough on militant groups, infiltration of guerrillas into Iraq and continued military and political control of Lebanon.

The Syrian government is usually slow to comment, if ever, on security matters. But pro-government legislator Suleiman Haddad said Syria will not abandon the Palestinians unless Israel allows them to return home.


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