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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK

World: Middle East

Attack renews Syrian family feud

By Barbara Plett in Amman

A simmering feud between Syrian President Hafez al Assad and his brother Rifaat has erupted again after conflicting reports of an attack against Rifaat's followers.

Opposition broadcasts said hundreds of people were killed when security forces launched an assault against Rifaat al Assad's residence in the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

Officials said it was a standard anti-corruption practice to close down an illegal port owned by the president's disgraced brother.

It is unclear exactly what happened, but at the very least, security forces moved in to check Rifaat al Assad's activities there.

Differing accounts

The official story is that the authorities shut down his private port because it was built illegally on government land.

[ image: The president's son Bashar is being groomed for the top job]
The president's son Bashar is being groomed for the top job
The president's brother was also suspected of operating a vast smuggling network in the region.

Those of Rifaat's men who tried to resist the closure were said to be detained for a short period and then reassigned to the armed forces, apparently because he no longer holds an official post.

He was stripped of the vice presidency last year and returned to Europe, where he has often taken refuge after disputes with his brother.

A satellite channel owned by Rifaat's son gave a different version of events in Latakia.

It said army tanks backed by air and navy forces attacked his residential complex, killing hundreds of people.

Sources in Jordan say the truth is probably somewhere in between: That around 25 people were wounded in a clash with several dozen soldiers after gun boats sealed off the harbour.

Long-standing feud

[ image: Syrian President Assad views his brother as a trouble maker]
Syrian President Assad views his brother as a trouble maker
Whatever the details, it appears this latest eruption of a long-standing feud is related to the country's top job.

Observers say Hafez al Assad is grooming his son, Bashar, for the presidency, and wants to make sure Rifaat will not challenge his plan.

Mr Assad has long viewed his charismatic and outspoken brother as a trouble maker.

The dispute between them nearly led to civil war 15 years ago, until Rifaat backed down and went into exile.

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