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Bush warns Syria against harbouring fleeing Iraqis

President Bush did not say he was threatening action against Syria but said, "they just need to cooperate."

india Updated: Apr 14, 2003 15:13 IST

President George W Bush warned Syria on Sunday not to harbor fleeing Iraqi leaders, while the US war commander said Syrian mercenaries have been helping Iraqi troops and paramilitaries hold out against coalition forces. Bush did not say he was threatening military action against Iraq's western neighbor, but said of the Syrians: "They just need to cooperate."

Speaking to reporters, Bush said he might contact Syrian leaders on Sunday to make clear his warning.

The president also charged that Syria has chemical weapons. He warned Syria, Iran and North Korea that Iraq's example shows "we're serious about stopping weapons of mass destruction." The Federation of American Scientists has said Syria is among 19 nations suspected of having or pursuing biological and chemical weapons. Syria has denied it.

Bush called Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said earlier Sunday "there's no question" that some leading members of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government have fled to Syria.

Some have remained in Syria, while others have moved on to different countries, Rumsfeld said. He declined to identify the Iraqis or the other countries, or if the United States was prepared to take any punitive action against Syria.

"We certainly are hopeful Syria will not become a haven for war criminals or terrorists," Rumsfeld said.

Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, denied that his country was harboring escaped Iraqis. He said it was the responsibility of US troops to monitor Iraq's border with Syria.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the US war commander, said his troops have been facing resistance from holdouts in Baghdad including foreigners, specifically Syrians.

Rumsfeld also said that Syrians accounted for the largest share of foreign fighters that US troops have faced in Baghdad over the past 24 hours.

"They have come in as mercenaries. They have been paid by the Iraqis. We have seen recruiting material," Franks told CNN television network. "And they're employed as everything from suicide bombers to small group hit squads."

When asked whether Syria could have prevented their arrival, Franks told Fox News he believed that "any nation that wants to control its borders can do so." However, he stopped short of accusing the Syrian government of sponsorship.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell also repeated Washington's concerns that Syria could be harboring members of Saddam's regime. "Syria has been a concern for a long period of time," Powell told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday.

"We have designated Syria for years as a state that sponsors terrorism, and we have discussed this with the Syrians on many occasions. We think it would be very unwise ... if suddenly Syria suddenly becomes a haven for all these people who should be brought to justice."

On Sunday, a Kurdish official said coalition forces captured Saddam's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim al-Tikriti, in northern Iraq when he was apparently attempting to reach Syria. The former interior minister, one of Saddam's advisers, was found northwest of Mosul.

First Published: Apr 13, 2003 23:10 IST