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Arabs Deny 200 al-Qaida Members Are in Lebanon

Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian organizations are denying Israeli claims that nearly 200 al-Qaida members, including senior commanders, have taken refuge in Lebanon.

A senior Syrian official told Beirut's An Nahar newspaper the Israeli charges are absurd. The Middle East News agency quotes a Lebanese security official as also denying the claim.

At the Beirut offices of Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, Secretary-General Sultan Abou el-Einen categorically denied the Israeli charge. "There is absolutely no presence, or any indication or sign of any al-Qaida elements near or remotely linked with...any Palestinian camp in Lebanon," he said. He added that if 200 outsiders moved into a Palestinian refugee camp there would be a significant uproar and lots of publicity.

Mr. el-Einen says Palestinians would not welcome al-Qaida to their camps. He says they blame the al-Qaida terror network for increased Israeli attacks against Palestinians.

The representative of Hamas in Beirut, Osama Abou Hamdan, also denied the Israeli charge. Hamas is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Tha Hamas official says the allegations by Israeli officials are designed to put Syria and Lebanon at odds with the United States in the war on terrorism. But he told VOA that ordinary Palestinians might give refuge to al-Qaida members in the future, out of frustration.

"If the United States continues on this action, no one can imagine what the normal people will do," said Mr. Hamdan. "Maybe the groups will not accept the idea, I mean the Palestinian groups, but you can not expect what a man who is walking down the street will do because he believes what the United States is doing is against his situation, against his rights."

A U.S. source in Cairo said he is aware of allegations that al-Qaida members are in Lebanon, but he can not confirm it.

Monday, an Israeli daily newspaper reported that as many as 200 members of al-Qaida fled Afghanistan and have taken refuge in the Ein Hilwe Palestinian refugee camp near the Lebanese coastal town of Sidon. Senior Israeli officials, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, confirmed the report and said Syria is helping al-Qaida establish itself in Lebanon.

Last month fighting erupted in the Ein Hilwe camp. Israeli officials say al-Qaida members were trying to gain control of the camp. But Osama Abou Hamdan, of Hamas, said it would be absurd to think 200 members of any group could take control of a camp that contains 75,000 refugees.

Palestinian officials say the clashes were between members of a radical Palestinian faction and Lebanese militants who were hiding from the Lebanese government.