But former terrorist says he received training there
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, October 7, 2003
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Serrvice
Jerusalem -- Syria claims that Ein Zaheb, the area near Damascus bombed by Israeli warplanes Sunday, is a Palestinian refugee camp in a peaceful rural area. But a former fighter in a Palestinian terrorist group told The Chronicle the bombed site was a key training facility and arsenal for Palestinian extremists based in Syria as recently as two years ago.
Israeli intelligence sources say they attacked the facility because it is "supported by Iran and is used for operational training for Palestinian terrorists."
Responding to the Israeli charges, Abu Emad el-Refaei, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in Beirut, denied that his organization had any bases in Syria.
"We do not have any training camps or bases in Syria or any other country," he told al Jazeera television Monday. "All our bases are inside the Palestinian occupied territories."
But Jamal Ali, who was an active member of a Syrian-based Palestinian extremist group until he renounced violence and left Syria nearly two years ago, said in an exclusive interview that he had received training at the camp three years ago. He said the site was uninhabited but was used for secretive one-day training sessions.
Now living under an assumed identity in Jordan, Ali said he had trained at Ein Zaheb and other facilities in Syria. He added that the Ein Zaheb base had still been in operation, and even expanding, in the summer of 2001, just before he left the country.
Ali said trainees were taken, one at a time, to nearby caves and given their weapons, accompanied by a training officer and four security guards.
"Inside the cave, we were handed the weapons and two or three grenades," he said. "We then went to a building outside known as the 'grease place,' where they kept the bullets and ammunition. Then we would spend hours stripping and rebuilding the guns until we could do it blindfolded.
"After that, we were driven up to the plateau for target practice with cardboard targets erected in the hills. Finally, we would practice throwing the grenades over the hillsides and diving for cover behind the rocks."
Footage first broadcast on Iranian television and replayed Sunday by Israel TV showed trainees at Ein Zaheb handling detonators and explosives, as well as large numbers of weapons, rockets and grenades stored in tunnels and caves.
Ali said the base was operated by the radical Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), the Palestinian splinter group led by Ahmed Jibril, but was used by most of the 10 extremist Palestinian organizations with headquarters in Damascus, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
A senior commander for the PFLP-GC told the Associated Press in Damascus on Monday that the camp was one of their deserted bases, not an Islamic Jihad camp, and had not been used in seven years. He said a civilian guard had been injured in the attack.
Ali described the camp as a sprawling underground network in "a very mountainous area riddled with caves."
"Inside the network of tunnels is one of the main weapons stores for Jibril's and the other groups," he said. "About three or four kilometers away, up on a plateau in the mountains, is a firing range used for training with guns, hand grenades and explosives."
Ein Zaheb was originally a training base used by Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, he said, until Syria turned against Arafat in 1983 and handed it over to Jibril.
"Ein Zaheb was the place where Abu Nidal, another Syrian-backed terrorist, executed 11 high-ranking officers from Fatah just after the Lebanon War in 1982," Ali said.
"It's a very rugged, very beautiful place in the mountains on the road from Damascus to Beirut," said Ali. "The terrain is so rough they train special squads in rock climbing and rappelling, but it's also full of natural springs and pools." The area is called Rabweh, he said, which means heaven.
On Monday, workers cleared rubble from what appeared to be a one-story house destroyed in the air raid. Pieces of metal and concrete shattered by the rocket attack lay on a nearby hill.
Israeli officials claim the camp is still feeding a pipeline that supplies terrorists to attack the country.
"There is a wide variety of training in the camp, including sabotage, artillery training, guerrilla warfare and even aeronautical training," said an Israeli security official. "Some of the terrorists training at the camp are operatives who come to receive advanced training and then return to Palestinian Authority territory in order to establish an operational terrorist infrastructure."
Amos Gilead, adviser on diplomatic and security affairs in the Israeli Defense Ministry, said the choice of Ein Zaheb as a target followed more than a month of tough messages warning Syrian leader Bashar Assad to stop assisting Palestinian extremists.