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Arafat In Damascus For First Time In Five Years

April 24, 1988

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat came to Damascus Sunday for the first time since he was expelled five years ago. PLO officials said Arafat and Syria would end their split.

Arafat, his leadership beset by the April 16 assassination of his deputy, Khalil Wazir, flew in from Libya and visited Wazir’s grave.

Arafat’s arrival in the Syrian capital capped a week-long mediation effort by Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi and Algerian President Chadli Benjedid to heal the rift between the onetime allies, PLO sources said on condition of anonymity.

Arafat’s key political aide, Farouk Kaddoumi, also been working on the reconciliation, conducting negotiations in Damascus since Tuesday.

Arafat was accompanied by Salah Khalaf, who with Arafat and Wazir founded the guerrilla’s mainstream faction, Fatah. Lt. Col. Mustafa Kharroubi, a chief aide to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, also was on the plane.

Asked if he would meet with President Hafez Assad, Arafat said, ″God willing.″

Arafat and Khalaf drove to the Martyrs’ Cemetry in Damascus’ Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp to pay tribute to Wazir.

Thousands of the camp’s 220,000 refugees took to the streets to welcome the Palestinian leader. ″Blood and souls we sacrifice for you, Abu Ammar,″ they chanted, invoking Arafat’s nom de guerre.

The refugees surrounded Arafat’s car and then lifted it off the ground in an emotional demonstration of support.

Arafat was expelled from Syria five years ago during a bloody feud with Assad. He had been expected to surmount his disagreements with Assad last week so he could fly to Damascus for Wazir’s burial last Wednesday, but that plan failed.

At least one PLO official said the imminent reconciliation was due to the death of Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad.

″The martyrdom of Abu Jihad certainly pushed the reconciliation forward,″ Bassam Abu Sharif, Arafat’s adviser, said in a telephone interview from Tunis.

″Joining hands with our Syrian brothers is the response for Israel’s crime. Abu Jihad’s blood is the bridge of unity for the forces fighting the Zionist occupation of Arab land,″ he said.

Indeed, Palestinian factions, divided since the PLO-Syrian rift, all denounced Wazir’s killing and vowed revenge. They called for the reunification within the PLO and a reconciliation with Syria as a response to Israel’s apparent effort to weaken the movement.

Israeli military sources have said Wazir, 52, was gunned down in Tunisia by a commando unit in a raid planned by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. The Israeli government has not confirmed it.

Arafat flew into Damascus airport amid tight security. He was met at the plane by Interior Minister Mohammed Harba and Saeed Hamadi, a member of the ruling Baath Party’s regional command.

There was little ceremony at the airport.

Arafat is generally accorded a head-of-state welcome in Arab countries, which regard the PLO as the sole representative of the world’s 5 million Palestinians. But the Syrian government reacted cautiously to Arafat’s first visit to Damascus since he was kicked out June 24, 1983.

The PLO and Syria have been inching toward a rapprochement since Arafat cut off relations with Egypt in April 1987 and pro-Syrian PLO factions made peace with Arafat’s mainstream Fatah faction of the PLO.

Syria, spearhead of Arab radicalism, has refused to make up with Egypt until President Hosni Mubarak cancels the March 1979 peace treaty that his predecessor, the late Anwar Sadat, signed with Israel.

Syria and Arafat are adamantly opposed to separate peace deals with Israel.

The Assad-Arafat feud erupted after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the consequent evacuation of the PLO from its power base in Beirut and south Lebanon.

Arafat at that time began looking into the prospects of negotiating peace with Israel.

That angered Assad and PLO radicals, who advocate armed struggle against Israel.

In May 1983, the friction exploded into an all-out battle between Arafat’s supporters and Syrian-backed hardliners seeking to oust the guerrilla chief from the PLO leadership.

By December that year, the dissidents had overrun Arafat’s bases in east and north Lebanon, forcing him to abandon his last Lebanese strongholds.

By 1985, the PLO had slowly infiltrated back into Beirut and south Lebanon.

That prompted the Syrian-backed Shiite Moslem Amal movement in Lebanon to attack Palestinian refugee camps.

The so-called ″war of the camps″ ended only three months ago as the PLO and Syria inched toward a settlement.

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