Palestinian Militants Lie Low in Syria

Their offices are closed, their mobile phones are off and they're hard to find in Damascus.

Yet the Palestinian militants Syria has harbored continue to cast a shadow over relations with America and fuel tension with Israel.

Since Secretary of State Colin Powell asked President Bashar Assad in May to close the offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine and other groups branded by Washington as terrorist, the militants have gone underground.

They have put a stop to rallies and fiery speeches to fellow Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk, a low-income area five miles south of Damascus where about 150,000 Palestinian refugees live. But they are still around, often traveling to neighboring Lebanon, where Damascus wields influence, to give statements or interviews to the Arab media.

Maher Taher, the top leader in Damascus of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine, said Saturday by telephone from Lebanon that the Palestinians are keen on preventing further pressure on Syria by lying low.

"We shouldn't give Israel and America pretexts on the issue of Syria," he said.

On Saturday, Hamas vowed to avenge Israel's killing of Hamas militants and its incursions in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The statement was faxed to The Associated Press office in Lebanon.

One Western diplomat in Damascus described the changes in the Palestinian presence in Syria as cosmetic. The groups remain operational in Damascus, he told the AP on condition of anonymity. He said the United States wants the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders expelled, not sent to Lebanon.

Israel staged an air strike near Damascus Oct. 5 after an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing at a restaurant in the Israeli city of Haifa killed 20 people.

Israel said the target was a training camp being used by Palestinian militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It said the base was under Syrian supervision and funded by Iran. Syria and Islamic Jihad said the base had been abandoned long ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would not hesitate to strike again in Syria.

Damascus, seen as militarily weak compared to Israel, responded to the Oct. 5 strike with only a complaint to the United Nations, but says it might do more next time, raising fears of a major conflagration in the Middle East.

Leaders like Khaled Mashaal and Mousa Abu Marzouk of Hamas and Islamic Jihad's Ramadan Abdullah Shallah have had homes and offices in Damascus. Some have been here since leaving Lebanon when Israel invaded in 1982, others came more recently.

Today, Palestinian leaders are still believed to be living in the Damascus area along with their families, but they are hard to track down. When they can be reached, they politely decline comment.

On Sunday, a guard post outside the apartment building that once housed Hamas offices in Yarmouk appeared to have been transformed into a small shop. A Hamas official said the group's rented properties had reverted to their owners and he no longer knew how they were being used.

A person who answered what had been the telephone number of Hamas' press office said Sunday that no Hamas office was there.

Assad has refused to expel the Palestinian leaders, maintaining Damascus does not consider them terrorists. He has said the leaders broke no Syrian laws and did not harm Syrian interests.

The Syrians have maintained that expelling the leaders would deprive them of a way to control their activities.