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US Says Syria Gives Safe Harbor to Palestinian Terrorists

The United States is stepping up criticism of Syria for allowing the group responsible for Tuesday's suicide bombing in Israel to operate on its territory. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says such support should end immediately.

The Bush administration is not accusing Syria of direct complicity in the deadly suicide attack at an Israeli shopping mall in the coastal town of Netanya.

But U.S. officials do accuse Damascus of allowing the group blamed for the attack, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or PIJ, to operate freely on its territory as it tries to torpedo progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's attack, the United States condemned the bombing and urged the Palestinian Authority to take immediate action to find those responsible and bring them to justice.

The Syrian connection was raised later by Secretary of State Rice, who in a written statement from the South Korean capital, Seoul, said it is essential that Syria end its support for terrorist organizations, particularly those like PIJ, which she said are headquartered and harbored in Damascus.

Ms. Rice said Syria should immediately stop letting its territory be used for insurgent activities and actions which she said frustrate the aspirations of the Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian people.

U.S.-Syrian relations have been strained for some time over charges from Washington that Syria has allowed foreign insurgents to cross its border into Iraq, and been fomenting instability in Lebanon despite its troop withdrawal earlier this year.

The United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, in February and acting State Department Spokesman Thomas Casey said there had been no specific U.S. demarche to Syria concerning the Netanya incident.

However, Mr. Casey said the Rice statement is clear and straight-forward and Syrian authorities are well-aware of U.S. concerns:

"I think the Syrians know our position quite well, and as we've said in the past, we're waiting for them to take action on it," he said. "I don't have anything to try and offer you in terms of an evaluation of specific responsibility for these acts. But I do know that Palestinian Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for this bombing, as they have for the last major attack that occurred before this. And again the fact the Syria continues to allow Palestinian Islamic Jihad offices, to operate in Damascus, is something we've been very concerned about over time."

A senior official who spoke to reporters here called PIJ the ultimate Palestinian rejectionist group and said that at best Syria is providing it with a safe harbor and aid and comfort.

He said Syria reneged on promises made to former Secretary of State Colin Powell on a Damascus visit more than two years ago to shut down offices of the radical groups, which Syria said at the time were only information outlets.

The State Department official said with Israel and the Palestinians now trying to move ahead on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan, it is all the more important to press Syria on the issue.

The United States' ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, and its Consul General in Jerusalem, David Pearce, have had contacts with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, respectively, in the aftermath of the Netanya attack. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch is also holding talks in the region.