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Monday, 2 September, 2002, 19:49 GMT 20:49 UK
Lebanese dismiss al-Qaeda report
Guerrillas of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Ayn al-Hilweh refugee cam
About 75,000 Palestinians live in the camp
A Israeli newspaper report that Syria has allowed nearly 200 al-Qaeda members and senior commanders to settle in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon has been widely dismissed in Beirut.

Ha'aretz's senior military correspondent, Zeev Schiff, said that between 150 and 200 al-Qaeda activists had taken refuge in the Ayn al-Hilweh camp, near Sidon.


It was only a matter of time before al-Qaeda found a comfortable refuge in Damascus

Raanan Gissin
But the BBC's Kim Ghattas in Beirut says the Ha'aretz report is viewed with suspicion in Lebanon by analysts and diplomats alike, while residents of the camp deny any major influx of militants.

One analyst said it was "yet another desperate attempt by Israel to link Lebanon and Syria with al-Qaeda and put them on the list of targets in the war against terrorism".

Observers also believe Israel is trying to prepare the ground for a potential strike against Lebanon and Syrian positions in the country which is effectively controlled by Damascus.

One Israeli soldier died on Monday of wounds sustained in a Hezbollah attack against the disputed Shebaa farms last week.

Stories about al-Qaeda operatives settling in Lebanon have been coming out regularly since 11 September, our correspondent says, but have until now been dismissed by the US administration.

Observers also have doubts about an alliance between Islamic militants and the secular Syrian Baathist regime, responsible for the bloody suppression of a fundamentalist rebellion in 1982 when 25,000 people died.

'Comfortable refuge'

Ha'aretz quoted information allegedly from Israeli and Western intelligence agencies that senior commanders had travelled to the camp from Afghanistan via Syria and Iran.

It said Syria was considered a place where al-Qaeda activists could move with relative freedom.

And Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that several radical groups were based in the capital, Damascus.

"It was only a matter of time before al-Qaeda found a comfortable refuge in Damascus like other organisations," he said.

Fighting in camp

Violence erupted in the Ayn al-Hilweh camp last month, wounding at least one person.

Officials blamed the fighting on a conflict between members of a radical Palestinian faction and Lebanese Sunni fundamentalists hiding from security officials.

But Ha'aretz said trouble had flared when al-Qaeda members tried to seize control of the camp.

Our correspondent says that though some members of the group are thought to have links with al-Qaeda it is unlikely that newly arrived, non-Lebanese, al-Qaeda members managed to enter the camp.

Meanwhile camp residents say they have not noticed any new arrivals, adding that they would gladly alert the media if there were as they resent their camp being used as a refuge by outlaws.

The camp is off-limits to Lebanese authorities and is run by various Palestinian factions who often settle their differences with weapons.

About 75,000 Palestinian refugees and their families live there.


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European probe

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See also:

13 Aug 02 | Middle East
30 Aug 02 | Americas
16 Apr 01 | Middle East
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