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Behind the Syria TV 'confessions'

Alleged Fatah al-Islam militant Abdul Baqi al-Hussein on Syrian TV
It is not clear when and where the alleged militants were detained nor how confessions were obtained

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

It was an unusual hour of primetime television programming.

On Thursday night, Syrian state television showed a long montage of interviews with several men and woman - all alleged members of Fatah al-Islam, a militant group with links to al-Qaeda.

Their testimonies were interrupted by sombre music laid over the pictures of the aftermath of the car bomb attack, which killed 17 people, mostly civilians, in Damascus in late September.

Speaking against the same black backdrop, the men admitted responsibility for the explosion, the aim of which, they said was to harm the Syrian government.

The relationship between Syria and Lebanon has improved, but it is still full of mistrust


One aspect of the "confessions" may be particularly damaging, and may have wider regional implications.

According to the televised testimonies, the explosives used in the attack were brought from northern Lebanon, where Fatah al-Islam, it is claimed, received financial support from the party of the country's pro-Western Sunni leader Saad Hariri.

According to the Syrian television the man who carried out the attack came from Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian authorities gave no details on how they obtained these confessions, and it is not clear when and under what circumstances those who appeared on television were detained.

'Lies'

Mr Hariri's supporters in Beirut have already labelled the broadcast as a "festival of lies" but analysts here believe that these testimonies will weaken the position of Saad Hariri and his party ahead of the crucial parliamentary election in the spring.

They are also likely to embarrass Mr Hariri's allies in Saudi Arabia.

Men inspect the damage on buildings at the scene of the blast in Damascus (27/09/08)
People in Damascus were deeply shocked by the rare attack
In 2005, Saad Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, died in a car bomb attack that many in Lebanon blamed on the Syrian government. Damascus has always denied any involvement.

The combination of public protest and international pressure sparked by Rafik Hariri's death forced Syria to end its 30-year military presence in Lebanon.

The relationship between the neighbours has since improved, but it is still full of mistrust.

Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians have long blamed Damascus for being the force behind Fatah al-Islam and stirring trouble in Lebanon in an attempt to continue to exert political pressure on its smaller neighbour.

But Syrian officials say that Damascus bombing shows that Syria is the victim of terrorism and not its source.

US strike

Fatah al-Islam gained prominence in 2007, when the group's militants fought a three month long battle against the Lebanese army in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

The uprising was put down, at a cost of almost 400 lives on both sides, however in the last few months there have been new attacks on the Lebanese army in the north of the country and Damascus has expressed concerns that northern Lebanon was becoming a source of extremism and a threat to Syria's national security.

Damascus is especially eager to make this point in the aftermath of the US military attack which killed eight people in a Syrian village near the border with Iraq in October.

Washington, which has long accused Damascus of allowing militants to cross into Iraq, said the raid targeted an al-Qaeda operative.

Parting gift

The US attack came at the time of a new dialogue between Syria and Europe - something the Syrians are keen not to see derailed.

One Syrian official described the attack as a "goodbye present from President Bush" who was angry at Damascus because of its refusal to play by the rules that "Bush administration had been trying to set in the Middle East".

"Once the new administration is in place in Washington things may change," the official source said.

With Barak Obama's election victory Syrian officials are hoping for a dramatic improvement in relations with Washington, which could in turn change the regional dynamic as well.

Damascus will try to use Thursday's broadcast to show that it is on the "right" side of the so-called war against terrorism and that it is invested in being a constructive regional player.

But while the rhetoric may be changing the questions surrounding Thursday's "confessions" are a reminder of the inflexible and secretive nature of the Syrian state.



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