U.S. reports confirm Syrian terror camp

Facility bombed by Israel under recent construction, satellites and spies find

October 10, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Syrian target that Israeli warplanes struck last weekend had been the site of recent construction, possibly to prepare it for use by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, senior American officials briefed on intelligence reports said yesterday.

Among the officials interviewed were some who said earlier in the week that they were skeptical of Israel's claims that the target was a terrorist camp. The officials agreed to discuss the issue after reviewing reports provided by the CIA.

The site, about 15 miles northwest of Damascus, has been used for training in the last six months by two smaller, less active, Palestinian militant groups, the American officials said. But they said the new construction, which was detected by American spy satellites, together with human intelligence reports indicating that Islamic Jihad might be preparing to use the site, had been seen as particularly worrisome.

The human intelligence reports had provided uncorroborated indications that the Syrian site might be used in the future not just as a staging ground for attacks on targets inside Israel, but also for attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, the American officials said.

The Bush administration has said that the United States had no advance knowledge of the Israeli raid, and the American officials reiterated that point yesterday. But the American officials also said they assumed that American intelligence information about the Syrian site had been shared with the Israeli government, as is customary in the relationship between the countries.

The American officials said yesterday that the specific nature of intelligence information about improvements under way at the site was one reason that President Bush, both in public and in private conversations with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, has defended the Israeli attack as justifiable.

The Israeli attack into Syria was the first in 30 years, and it was launched after a Palestinian suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad carried out an attack in the northern port city of Haifa that killed 20 people. Together with the Islamic resistance group Hamas, Islamic Jihad is the largest and most active of the Palestinian militant groups, and it has carried out many large-scale suicide attacks in Israel.

One official said yesterday that American spy satellite monitoring at the camp had picked up indications of recent "structural improvements." The camp had been used as recently as six months ago by at least one of two separate factions of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the officials said. But the officials said the evidence of new construction suggested that it "was being fixed up for someone else to use."

The American officials said that they did not know which entity had been making improvements to the camp, but that they could only have been carried out with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Syrian government.

The Damascus government has said the Ain Saheb site was a civilian area with no connection to terrorist groups. But the Syrian authorities have refused to permit reporters access to the site, which is in an area of steep ravines.

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