WASHINGTON – A senior Syrian diplomat denied on Tuesday that his government permits militant groups to plot attacks on Israel from offices in Damascus.
"Bring us any evidence an operation was planned from Damascus," Imad Moustapha, the acting ambassador to Washington, said at a news conference.
He said various groups had information offices in Damascus that were closed by the government. "We will not allow them to do any planning," Moustapha said at the Middle East Institute (search), a private research group.
On a new flare-up between Israel and the Lebanese militant group (search), the ambassador said Hezbollah was defending Lebanon against Israeli occupation and had never attacked Israelis in Israel.
He said the Israeli soldier killed Monday was in Lebanon, which remains unsatisfied that Israel's pullback had returned every last inch of territory to Lebanon.
On another front, Moustapha said Syria had not permitted fighters to cross its border to and from Iraq.
For the most part, the ambassador promoted President Bashar al-Assad's (search) "peace initiative," calling for a resumption of negotiations with Israel, and Moustapha urged President Bush to register his support for "momentum" in his State of the Union message.
"We want to regain the Golan Heights through negotiations." he said of the strategic plateau Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. "We are not going to war."
He said negotiations should resume where they left off when Ehud Barak was Israel's prime minister.
"We have achieved a lot," he said, "We have built a lot on the peace front. Why should we waste more years?"
Moustapha said the two sides had made headway before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and then in 2000 when Barak was prime minister .
But he said Barak backed off on the basis of Israeli polls.
"We seriously believe we should resume those negotiations, without preconditions and build from what is on the table," Moustapha said.
The spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, Mark Regev, said Israel was prepared to hold "good-faith negotiations with no preconditions."
"We think at this stage we don"t need words, we need actions," Regev said.
"If the Syrians would end their support for terrorist groups that conduct suicide bombings this would be a very important confidence-building measure," the Israeli official said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell credited Syria last month "with doing a better job" working with U.S. troops to start closing Syria's border with Iraq to keep militants from crossing over. However, Powell said "we want to watch the situation very closely."
At the same time, Powell gave no ground on Syria, which annually is listed by the State Department as a sponsor of terror.
"Syria still doesn't get it that they have to abandon support of terrorist activity," Powell said.