Capture and freedom with a hidden Lebanese agenda

The shadow of Syria seems to follow some strange events, reports Robert Fisk
Beirut - Why was Darrar el-Karmeh, financial director of the new Beirut Marriott hotel, kidnapped by three armed men on 3 January? Why was he released unharmed at the weekend? And why - a question of rather more pressing importance to Arab embassies in the region - have three Iraqi diplomats held in Beirut for the murder of an Iraqi opposition leader in 1994, suddenly also been given their freedom? The Lebanese press, with that discretion that always suggests a sister country may have been involved, has been hinting broadly that Syria is sending some blunt messages to its international rivals.

But first to Mr Karmeh, a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport whose wife and three children live with him in Beirut. Not long after his abduction, the Lebanese authorities - embarrassed at being unable to hunt down his kidnappers or to explain the background to his disappearance - told Lebanese journalists, off the record, that three Syrian intelligence agents had "lifted" the man from the Marriott on suspicion of involvement in the killing of a Syrian civilian in a bus north of Beirut last December and the later bombing of a bus in Damascus which left 13 civilians dead. There were rumours that - under the terms of the 1991 Friendship and Co- operation treaty - Mr Karmeh had been taken to Syrian intelligence headquarters at Aanjar or even to Damascus. The Jordanian embassy complained to the Lebanese foreign ministry, demanding news of the missing man. But while the ministry was trying to explain the mystery, it was also instructing the security authorities in the city to release the three Iraqi diplomats. All three - Mohamed Kamel, Ali Darwish and Hadi Najm - were stripped of their diplomatic immunity in 1994 and accused of the assassination of Sheikh Taleb Soheil, a prominent member of the anti-Saddam Hussein "Council of Free Iraq".

Then last weekend, all three Iraqis were freed from custody and allowed to return to Iraq through Damascus - even though Syria remains Iraq's harshest opponent in the Arab world. Yet again, the Jordanians, who have given their encouragement to the murdered sheikh's Council of Free Iraq - bitterly complained to the Lebanese, this time not via the foreign ministry in Amman but directly from the Hashemite royal court.

So what on earth has been going on in Lebanon these last few weeks? Did Lebanon suddenly decide to rid itself of three troublesome diplomats because, out of the blue, it decided to restore relations with Iraq? Did Mr Karmeh suffer amnesia on his way to work three weeks ago, only to recover his memory at the weekend, unable - and he has refused to talk to journalists - to recall anything that happened to him since 3 January?

Or could it be that Syria, which has said nothing about either affair, is allowing silence to speak louder than words? The Jordanians have been accusing Syria of "terrorism" of late, and at least one United States think-tank has suggested that Jordan might be used as a springboard to destabilise Syria if it will not come to heel and sign a peace with Israel without the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan heights.

Jordan makes no secret of its support for Iraqis who wish to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, even for the installation of a Jordanian royal on a restored Iraqi throne. With Israel and its new allies - Jordan and Turkey - standing along three of Syria's frontiers, Damascus may be in the mood to remind the world that the relationship with the rival Baathist regime in Baghdad could yet be restored. How better to do this than by inviting three of Saddam's henchmen to go home via Damascus - and by reminding Jordan that it may be held responsible for attacks on Syrian citizens in both Beirut and Damascus?

Letters, page 13

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