Assad: Closure of Palestinian offices linked to Golan Heights deal; Sharon can't be trusted
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad linked restricting Palestinian groups operating in Syria to getting the Golan Heights back from Israel in a magazine interview released on Saturday.
"Our priority is to restore our territory," the Syrian leader said in the interview posted on Newsweek's Web site.
After meeting Assad on May 3, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Syria told him it had closed the offices of several Palestinian groups.
"I talked with Mr. Powell about stopping 'activities,' not closures," Assad told the magazine. "The (Palestinians) have information offices and can appear on TV. But (restricting them) is related to the Golan -- to resuming the peace talks on the Syrian track."
"If any Israeli government is ready to engage on these terms and restore our territory, we have no problem," he said.
Powell was in Israel to promote a new "road map" peace plan that asks Israel and the Palestinians to begin confidence-building steps and that envisages a Palestinian state by 2005. Assad said it was time for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We won't interfere. Our concern is the Golan," Assad told Newsweek.
Asked if Syria would stop funding Palestinian groups, he said: "All the Arabs support the Palestinians and send them money. You cannot stop that. No one in our area calls it terrorism. They are talking about freedom."
Assad confirmed that Powell had raised the issue of Lebanon's Hizbullah.
"They do not get arms via Syria. We give them political support because they want to get back their lands," Assad said. Asked if he would consider stopping political support for Hizbullah, Assad replied: "As long as they don't do any terrorist acts, we are supporting them."
Assad sounded pessimistic about the chances of peace under the current Israeli leadership. "We don't trust (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon because he definitely doesn't want to make peace," he said.
Assad also said Syria barred entry to members of Saddam Hussein's government who tried to flee Iraq during the war. Pressed on this, he said: "Somebody came before (the war)."
He acknowledged that Iraqi oil had flowed into Syria, but denied any Iraqi weapons or mass destruction or conventional weapons were allowed across the border. Some "arms were smuggled into Iraq by individuals; the government had nothing to do with it." (Albawaba.com)
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