Syria: Assad gives terror gang free rein

Israeli soldiers on exercises in the occupied Golan Heights yesterday. Picture: Reuters

Israeli soldiers on exercises in the occupied Golan Heights yesterday. Picture: Reuters

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PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad’s regime has given a Palestinian militant group permission to set up missiles to attack Israel in the wake of recent Israeli airstrikes on the Syrian capital, a spokesman for the group has said.

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Syria has hinted at possible retribution against Israel since the airstrikes at the weekend, although official statements have been relatively mild.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels said they were holding a group of Filipino UN peacekeepers on the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights after clashes in the area had put them in danger.

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade made the announcement on Facebook in a statement accompanied by a picture of four peacekeepers wearing UN flak jackets.

It was the second time in two months that unarmed UN military observers have been captured in the Golan.

“Syria has given the green light to set up missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets,” Anwar Raja of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command said yesterday.

He said the PFLP-GC had been told it could carry out attacks independently.

“Practically, the Syrian stand has always been supportive of the Palestinian resistance and Syria provides the Palestinian resistance with all capabilities including all kinds of weapons,” Mr Raja said.

When the revolt against Assad’s rule began in March 2011, the half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria largely stayed on the sidelines. As the uprising shifted into a civil war, however, many Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups have been fighting on the government side. Those include the PFLP-GC, a Damascus-based Palestinian faction.

In the 1960s through to the 1980s, PFLP-GC militants hijacked an Israeli airliner, machine-gunned another at Zurich’s airport, and blew up a Tel Aviv-bound Swissair plane, killing all 47 aboard. In 1987, a PFLP-GC guerrilla flew from Lebanon into Israel on a hang-glider and killed six soldiers before being shot dead.

While the group earned notoriety for its past attacks on Israel, it has been eclipsed in the past 20 years by the Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israel’s government has not formally confirmed involvement in the strikes on Syria. However, officials have said the attacks were meant to prevent Iranian weapons reaching Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, an ally of Syria and foe of Israel.

The airstrikes raised the possibility of a wider conflict with Syria, which is engulfed in a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people, as its focal point.

Iran, a close ally of the Assad regime, has condemned the Israeli attacks and warned of possible retaliation. Yesterday, however, Iran’s foreign minister said it is Syria’s Arab neighbours – not Tehran – which should respond to the Israeli strikes.

Speaking in Amman, Jordan, Ali Akbar Salehi said Arab nations “must stand by their brethren in Damascus”.

Syria has allowed Iran to send weapons through its territory to Hezbollah. In turn, Iran has supplied cash and weapons to the Syrian government in its efforts to crush the anti-Assad revolt.

Mr Salehi warned of the possible repercussions if the government in Damascus were to fall.

“The fallout from a vacuum in Syria will have adverse effects on its neighbours and the whole region,” he said. “There will be serious repercussions from a vacuum. It will be grave and nobody can predict the results.”

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