The international Quartet on the Middle East Friday called for restraint and decisive action by Israeli and Palestinian authorities to end the latest flare-up of violence in the region. The Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, said Syria should act immediately to shut down Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for Wednesday's suicide bombing in Israel.
The statement by the Quartet underlines the degree of international concern about the outbreak of violence spawned by the suicide attack in the Israeli town of Hadera and followed by an Israeli military offensive in the West Bank and Gaza.
Officials here say the statement resulted from a half-hour conference call Friday involving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and senior European Union foreign policy officials Javier Solana and Benita Ferraro-Waldner.
The Quartet partners condemned the Hadera market bombing that killed five Israelis and noted that responsibility for the attack had been claimed by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, headquartered in Damascus.
The Quartet urged the Syrian government to take immediate action to close the group's offices and to prevent the use of its territory by armed groups engaged in terrorist acts.
The statement further urged Israel and the Palestinians to exercise restraint, avoid an escalation of violence and keep communications channels open.
It also encouraged the Palestinian Authority to move against armed groups acting against law and order in areas under its control, and said it is imperative that all involved act to ensure that terror and violence are not allowed to undermine further progress on the Quartet's peace "road map."
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the focus of the Quartet conference call was on the Damascus government's continuing support for Palestinian "rejectionist" groups opposing peace efforts.
While not accusing Syrian officials of ordering the latest attack, Mr. McCormack said it is clear that senior leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups are resident in Damascus, and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared in public with some of them about a month ago. "The Quartet members thought that it was very important to speak out very clearly and to issue a clear call to the Syrian regime to end its support for these rejectionist groups, and in particular to close down the offices of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Damascus. I would point out that there are already Security Council resolutions, I would note 1373 (UN Resolution), that call upon all states to act, to take actions to stop terrorist acts and to end support for terrorist groups," he said.
The United States has long pressed Syria to close the offices of the radical Palestinian factions, which Syria has described merely as information bureaus. U.S. officials say Syria reneged on specific commitments to act against the groups offered during a Damascus visit by former Secretary of State Colin Powell in May, 2003.
The Quartet statement came as the Syrian government was already under heavy political pressure after a U.N. investigation implicated senior Syrian security officials in last April's Beirut assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The U.N. Security Council is expected to hold an unusual meeting at the foreign ministers' level next Monday on a draft resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, France and Britain, that threatens Syria with sanctions if it does not cooperate with the U.N. investigation.
A government statement Friday from Damascus renewed what it said was Syria's readiness to continue cooperation with the U.N. inquiry, while saying the probe should not be politicized or serve the interests of certain countries, which were not identified.
The Syrian statement followed a brief visit to Damascus by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who met President al-Assad.