We Have No Terrorists in Syria, Assad Tells Blair

Article excerpt

Syrian President Bashar Assad yesterday publicly rebuffed a call from Tony Blair to shut down Palestinian terrorist organisations operating in his country.

Following talks with the Prime Minister in Downing Street, Mr Assad insisted that there were no Palestinian terrorists in Syria - simply 'press officers'.

'Of course we don't have in Syria what are called organisations supporting terrorism.

'We have press officers,' he told a joint news conference.

'These press officers represent Palestinians who live in Syria and Palestinians who live in Palestine.

'These officers express the opinions of Palestinians inside Palestine and outside Palestine.

'Palestinians have a right to have someone to express their opinion.

'In our country they are called press officers. They are not called terrorist organisations.'

Earlier Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien had expressed the Government's concern at the continuing presence in Syria of offices of 'rejectionist' groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

'We believe that these have not served the interests of the Palestinian people or peace,' he said. 'We hope that the Syrians will decide to close the offices of these groups in Damascus.'

But despite the disagreement on the issue of the Palestinian groups, the talks appeared to have gone more smoothly than Mr Blair's visit to Damascus last year when he was harangued by Mr Assad over the Middle East peace process.

Mr Assad, on his first official visit to Britain, said that they had agreed on most 'basic issues' and spoke of his 'warm personal relations' with Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister acknowledged there had been 'obvious and clear' differences between them, but said that the 'process of engagement' with Syria was 'the right way forward'. …