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US Praises Syria's Handling of Attack on US Embassy


The United States is praising the response of Syrian authorities to Tuesday's terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus. But the Bush administration also renewed its criticism of Damascus for sheltering groups U.S. officials believe are involved in terrorism.

The attack, carried out by four men using improvised bombs and small arms, was repelled by Syrian embassy guards and security forces, and the response prompted some rare U.S. praise for Damascus and high-level diplomatic contacts.

But the underlying tension was evident soon after the incident, with the Syrian embassy in Washington alleging that U.S. policies were fueling Middle East extremism, and the State Department countering with new criticism of alleged Syrian support for terrorism.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Canada, said the Bush administration very much appreciated the way Syria responded to the attack, while expressing condolences for the death of a member of the Syrian security forces who was killed.

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow said the United States is grateful for the Syrian role in dealing with the attack, which he said underscores the importance of Syria becoming an ally in fighting terrorism.

The Syrian embassy in Washington responded with a caustic press statement, calling it regrettable that U.S. policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism, terrorism and anti-American sentiment.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Thomas Casey reiterated that Syria has allowed extremist Palestinians and others to find a haven on its soil. While not accusing them of being behind the embassy assault, Casey said the incident should prompt Damascus authorities to reconsider their stand.

"My response to that press release would be to invite the Syrian government to once again, as we have so often in the past, evaluate its policies and determine whether its continued support for terrorism is, in fact, an appropriate way to proceed," he said. "Again, as this incident shows today, there is no boundary in terms of terrorist actions. Terrorism can strike anyone, anywhere."

Syria has long been listed by State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism and diplomatic contacts are minimal, with the U.S. ambassador having been withdrawn from Damascus more than a year and a half ago.

But spokesman Casey said the U.S. charge d'affaires Michael Corbin, met at Tuesday's attack scene with Syrian Interior Minister Bassem Abdel-Majid, who he said pledged all efforts to secure the embassy, including establishing a new security cordon in the area.

He said the U.S. diplomat received similar assurances in a telephone conversation with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Arnous.

Three of the four embassy attackers were killed but a fourth was wounded and detained, and, according to a senior official here, he was providing information to Syrian authorities.

The official declined to speculate on responsibility for the attack, but said the two vehicle bombs used in the assault were crudely-made, and that only one exploded and did not cause major damage.

He said U.S. officials had been unaware of any specific threat to the Damascus embassy, but that security had been tightened following the recent crisis in Lebanon.

The embassy was closed after the attack and will remain shuttered Wednesday. It issued a so-called warden message to private Americans in Syria urging them to maintain a very low profile.