Syria says militants in Lebanon work for al Qaeda

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UNITED NATIONS, May 21 (Reuters) Syria's UN Ambassador said TOday that militants fighting Lebanese troops had been jailed in Damascus a few years ago for links to al Qaeda, and would be rearrested if they returned.

Denying accusations that Syria had links to the Fatah al-Islam group battling the Lebanese army, Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said several members of the group had spent ''three or four years'' in Syrian jails ''a couple of years ago'' because of ties to al Qaeda, then were released and left the country.

''If they come to Syria they will be jailed,'' he told reporters.

''They are not fighting on behalf of the Palestinian cause. They are fighting on behalf of al Qaeda.'' He said the leaders of the group were mostly Palestinians, Jordanians or Saudis and perhaps a ''couple of them'' were Syrians.

After the leaders were free they began ''terrorist practices'' and trained ''new elements'' on behalf of al Qaeda, but had left Syria before they could be jailed again.

Battles engulfed a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon yesterday in the second day of fighting between the Lebanese army and the militants, which has killed 79 people.

Black smoke billowed from the Nahr al-Bared camp, home to 40,000 Palestinians, as tanks shelled positions held by Fatah al-Islam fighters hitting back with machine gun and grenades.

Syria closed two border crossings with northern Lebanon yesterday because of security concerns over the clashes.

Lebanese government ministers say Fatah al-Islam is a tool used by Syria to stir instability in an effort to derail UN efforts to set up an international court and try suspects in the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Ja'afari denied this was the case but said every time there was a U.N. Security Council meeting on Lebanon, one or two days before or afterwards, ''there was some trouble in Lebanon'' such as assassinations or explosions.'' ''So this is not a coincidence,'' he said. ''Some people are trying to influence the Security Council and (put) pressure on the members on the Security Council so they go ahead with the American-French-British resolution,'' sponsors of the measure on the tribunal.

Hariri and 22 others were killed by a suicide bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005, followed by a series of killings of anti-Syrian figures. Syria has denied involvement but was forced to pull out its troops from Lebanon after 29 years.


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