DAMASCUS (Reuters) -Extremist Islamic groups with an ideology similar to al Qaeda have found shelter in Lebanon after escaping Syrian security forces hunting them, President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks published on Monday.
“We are chasing a lot of groups and a number of them have escaped from Syria to Lebanon because it’s closest and easiest through mountainous roads,” Assad said in an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat.
Syria’s Baathist government, which is avowedly secular, says it has stepped up operations to contain armed militant groups and foiled attacks on undisclosed targets inside the country.
Earlier this month security forces killed four youths the government said were part of an Islamist militant group that had obtained weapons from a neighboring country to conduct sabotage attacks on Syrian installations.
Assad said the militant groups, emboldened by the U.S. occupation of Iraq, were not directly linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network but shared its “takfiri” ideology, which brands some Muslims as infidels and allows their killing.
“Most of them are trying to obtain financing for their operations, because they think they are fighting for Islam.” Assad said. “They are only linked amongst each other by takfiri thought, which is influenced by what is happening in Iraq.”
Syria says it has tightened its desert border with Iraq, which Washington says is a transit route for foreign fighters bent on attacking U.S. forces.
The United States has been piling pressure on Damascus to change its policy toward Iraq and Lebanon, from where Syrian troops were forced to withdraw following last year’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri.
Although Syria’s military is gone, Damascus still retains some influence on Lebanese politics and foreign affairs.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed a missile attack on Israel from Lebanon in December as part of a “new attack” on the Jewish state. It appeared to be the group’s first claim from Lebanon.
Lebanon also charged 13 suspected al Qaeda members in January with planning to launch terrorist attacks and scores of young Lebanese and Palestinian refugees in the country have been recruited to fight in Iraq.