|al-Qaida Said to Find Refuge
Report Says Nearly 200 al-Qaida Members Have
Found Refuge in Lebanon With Syria's Permission
The Associated Press \ ABC-news \ 9/2/02
|J E R U S A L E M, Sept. 2 —
Nearly 200 al-Qaida operatives, including
several senior commanders, have settled in
Lebanon with Syria's permission, taking refuge in a large Palestinian refugee
camp there, an Israeli newspaper reported Monday.
A source in Jerusalem, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the report, saying the information comes from Israeli and Western intelligence agencies.
A Lebanese security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied al-Qaida members were in the refugee camp, saying 10 to 15 Islamic militants are hiding from authorities in the camp. The militants were involved in clashes in which nine Lebanese soldiers were killed.
Zeev Schiff, a prominent Israeli journalist who covers the military, reported in Haaretz daily that Damascus has allowed between 150 and 200 al-Qaida operatives to settle in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh, near the Lebanese coastal town of Sidon.
The group includes senior commanders who arrived from Afghanistan through Damascus and Iran, the newspaper reported Monday, attributing its information to "various intelligence services."
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, refused to confirm the report but noted that several radical groups, including militant PLO factions, are based in Damascus.
"It was only a matter of time before al-Qaida found a comfortable refuge in Damascus like other organizations," Gissin said.
Last month, fighting erupted in the refugee camp, wounding at least one person. Officials in the camp said the clashes were between members of a radical Palestinian faction and Lebanese militants who were hiding from Lebanese security officials.
But Haaretz said the fighting erupted when al-Qaida operatives tried to gain control over the camp, which is off-limits to Lebanese authorities and is run by various Palestinian factions who often settle their differences with arms. The camp is home to some 75,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Mohammed Atta, who commandeered the first airplane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, visited Syria two or three times, but Syrian intelligence agencies did not voluntarily offer this information to the United States, Haaretz reported.
In addition, Osama bin Laden's son, Omar, and his mother, Nagwa, were living in Syria until three weeks before the attacks, leaving when they received instructions to flee, the newspaper reported.
Haaretz said the son returned to Syria at least three times after Sept. 11.
Bin Laden's wife and son are not in Syria now, according to Haaretz.
Syria was considered a place where al-Qaida activists could move with relative freedom and served as a transit point where they set up infrastructure before Sept. 11, Haaretz said.
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