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Assad gives the green light for militants to attack Israel

Fears of Israel being dragged into Syria's civil war grew after a notorious Palestinian militant group said it had been given the "green light" by Damascus to attack Israeli targets.

The announcement came as President Bashar al-Assad said his country was capable of facing Israel, in his first comments since the Jewish state launched air strikes on Syria over the weekend.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a group accused of an airline bombing and numerous other terrorist atrocities, has been authorised by Mr Assad to set up missile batteries to attack Israel, according to Anwar Raja, the group's spokesman in Damascus.

"Syria has given the green light to set up missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets," Mr Raja said.

The comments by the Popular Front, which has its power base among the Palestinian refugee camps of Syria, came as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, began talks in Russia in an attempt to find "common ground"on Damascus.

The group, which began life as a Syrian-backed Palestinian splinter faction in 1968, has a long history of attacking Israeli targets, killing 47 people during the bombing of a Tel Aviv-bound Swissair plane in 1970.

In 1987, a guerrilla from the militant group flew from Lebanon into Israel on a hang-glider and killed six soldiers before being shot dead.

Unlike some other Palestinian factions based in Syria, who have turned against the government in protest over its suppression of the democratic uprising, it has remained strictly loyal to Mr Assad.

In practice, it is a relatively minor player compared with other Islamic militant factions such as Hamas and Hizbollah. However, the prospect of Palestinian factions attacking Israel from bases outside its borders will evoke worrying comparisons with Israel's conflict with Lebanon in the 1980s, and would complicate any future peace deal.

News of the group's pledge came as Mr Kerry flew in to what many described as a lukewarm reception in Russia, which has been a staunch supporter of Mr Assad.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, kept Mr Kerry waiting for three hours before their meeting at the Kremlin, reportedly devoting the time to domestic issues.

The Russian leader then appeared unfocused during a public appearance alongside Mr Kerry, fiddling distractedly with a pen as his guest spoke.

However, while Mr Kerry did his best to strike a positive tone, speaking of the two superpowers' mutual interest in fighting the al-Qa'ida "extremists" now dominating the rebel side of the Syrian conflict, Mr Putin made no mention of Syria at all.

Yesterday, the conflict in Syria escalated, mostly around the Golan Heights, a traditional flashpoint with neighbouring Israel.

A group of Syrian rebels calling itself the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades abducted four United Nations peacekeepers patrolling the area, accusing them of shielding soldiers who had killed civilians in the southern town of Wadi Raqat. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent