Syria denies links to Fatah al-Islam militants

DAMASCUS Mon May 21, 2007 12:48pm EDT

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DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria rejected on Monday accusations from Lebanese officials that it had links to Fatah al-Islam militants fighting troops in northern Lebanon, saying it had tried to arrest the group's leaders.

"Our forces have been after them, even through Interpol," Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said in a lecture at Damascus University. "We reject this organization. It does not serve the Palestinian cause and it is not after liberating Palestine."

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

"The (Syrian) Interior ministry had already issued statements about the leaders of Fatah al-Islam after a bombing in Lebanon several weeks ago," Moualem said, referring to Syria's denials in March that it had any links to the group, which was accused of bombing two buses near Beirut.

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara met Lebanon's Islamic Action Front, an opposition group which says it has contacts with Fatah al-Islam.

Fatah al-Islam emerged in November when it split from Fatah al-Intifada (Fatah Uprising), a Syrian-backed Palestinian group.

Lebanese tanks shelled Fatah al-Islam militants in a Palestinian refugee camp on Monday in a second day of clashes which have killed 71 people.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Syria, telephoned Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora on Monday "demanding that Lebanese forces take the utmost measures to preserve the lives of Palestinian civilians in the camp", a Hamas statement said.

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Moualem also said the U.N. tribunal to try the suspects in Hariri's killing had fallen under U.S. control and could further destabilize Lebanon.

"The Syrian people must realize that this tribunal is one of the tools of the United States to undermine Syria and the region. This is why we said we will not deal with it," he said.

"Will the rush to establish the tribunal bring security and stability to Lebanon or threaten them?" Moualem said during his lecture at the University of Damascus.

A United Nations investigation has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the assassination. Syria has denied involvement but signaled Damascus might not cooperate with the court if it indicted Syrian officials.

The Hariri assassination triggered protests in Lebanon and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.

Washington, Paris and London have said those involved in Hariri's killing must be punished and the tribunal was vital to deter more assassinations. France's U.N. ambassador said he hoped the resolution would be adopted by the end of the month.

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