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Syria: Time is Ripe for Peace Negotiations with Israel Israel Faxx News Services

Syria said Wednesday the time was ripe to seek a just peace between Arabs and Israel, but insisted any negotiations must build on the outcome of previous peace efforts and United Nations resolutions.

Peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in January 2000 over the future of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"It [Syria] has always displayed a willingness to return to negotiations on the ground set through Madrid [peace conference in 1990], United Nations resolutions and the land-for-peace formula. This stance has not changed," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban told reporters.

"I really believe it's about time we do that [achieve peace] in the region because all small solutions are not going to solve problems, what is needed is a whole settlement."

The statement came hours after the leader of a radical Palestinian group confirmed that he was ready to shut offices in Damascus in order to ease U.S. pressure on Syria, but added that Syrian officials had made no such demand.

Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, however, hinted that the Syrians might be ready to make a request soon.

The group "is ready to meet the Syrian demands if such demands are useful for Syrian policy," Jibril told reporters in Damascus. "The Palestinian organizations have found that if this could alleviate the unjust [U.S.] campaign on Syria at this time, then the offices have no value for us and each house in the [refugee] camps is a house for the Palestinian cause."

During his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Saturday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he discussed the offices kept by radical Palestinian groups, which the U.S. administration classes as terrorist organizations.

After his talks with Assad on Saturday, Powell said Damascus had taken some measures to rein in Palestinian groups, carrying out "some closures." He welcomed the move, but said he expected Syria "to do more, with respect to access and appearances of various officials in those organizations."

Palestinian groups at the time denied that they had closed offices or been forced to close them.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban reiterated Wednesday that these offices were only media functions, but suggested that there was a Syrian understanding with Washington that they should not be allowed to disrupt Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

"The issue was discussed [during Powell's visit] in an effort not to disrupt or negatively affect the road map between Israelis and Palestinians in the framework of the American endeavor to reach a just and comprehensive peace in the region," she said.

Nayef Hawatmeh, the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another Damascus-based radical Palestinian group, expressed hopes Wednesday that the Syrian government would not bow to U.S. pressure. But he declined to take a stand on whether he was ready to shut down the group's offices if Syria demands it.

Israel Sees al Qaeda Link to British Bombers

By Reuters

Two Britons who carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv were recruited to the Palestinian militant group Hamas by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, Israel's military chief of staff said on Wednesday.

At Mike's Place beachfront pub in Israel's largest city, revelers gathered to mark a week since Asif Hanif, 21, blew himself up there, killing three people and wounding 55. Hanif's alleged accomplice, Omar Sharif, 27, remains at large.

"Al Qaeda is a collection of groups which collaborate. What we saw in this attack is collaboration between external groups working through Lebanon and Damascus which knew how to connect these two terrorists -- of Pakistani extraction, living in Britain -- with Hamas," Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon told Army Radio in an interview for Israel's Independence Day.

"It is amazing and worrying. This is what characterizes al Qaeda," Yaalon said. "And in this case its connection is with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and ends with the Tel Aviv blast."

Israeli officials said Hanif and Sharif spent time in Syria before entering Israel via Jordan. From there, they entered Gaza, linked up with Hamas, and used their British passports to re-enter Israel and strike in Tel Aviv, officials said.

Hamas, an Islamic movement sworn to Israel's destruction, issued a joint claim of responsibility for the Tel Aviv bombing along with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction. Hamas usually publishes its suicide bombers' names but this time withheld details, declining to comment on the two Britons.

Supporting a 31-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation is central to bin Laden's doctrine, but Palestinian officials and militant leaders denied Israeli charges that al Qaeda has set up cells in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said Sharif fled last Wednesday's bombing after apparently failing to detonate his load. The type of bomb used is among details suppressed by a gag order, but Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was quoted as saying on Sunday that the explosives were smuggled into the country inside a Koran.

According to the intelligence journal Jane's, the copy of the Islamic holy book contained so-called "datasheets," refined plastic explosive rolled to resemble normal paper pages.

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