Three prominent Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders have left Damascus in recent days. Khaled al-Fahoum, a former speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a close associate of the Syrian regime, said the organizations' offices and that of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command there have been closed.

Spokesmen for the 10 rejectionist front groups based in Damascus declined to talk to reporters yesterday, but the offices of three of the main organizations - Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC - were closed.

Among those who left Syria recently were Khaled Mashal and Mussa Abu Marzuk of Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad's Ramadan Shalah. Mashal and Abu Marzuk are in Qatar. Shalah, who is close to Hezbollah, is believed to be in Lebanon.

There have been weeks of intense American pressure on Syria to curb Palestinian militants. Secretary of State Colin Powell met Syrian President Bashar Assad on May 3 and said Assad had indicated his government was shutting down some Palestinian groups operating in Damascus.

Israeli sources call the developments in Syria "cosmetic" and say radical Palestinian activity has not ceased in Damascus. "There have not been any real steps to curb the freedom of movement of the organizations," said a senior military source, who said the departure of the Palestinians was "a relative lull in the physical presence of senior Palestinians."

"The decision to freeze our activities came as a result of (American) threats against Syria," not from Syrian demands, and to protect Syria from harm, said Fahoum. He said group leaders would remain in Syria, but would not act in political roles. "Circumstances will determine" how long the offices remained shut, he said.

A second Palestinian, who spoke on condition that he or his group not be named, yesterday confirmed that all the Damascus Palestinian offices had stopped functioning until further notice.

During a news conference yesterday with a visiting Danish official, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara was asked if his government had closed the offices of radical Palestinian groups. "This is a Palestinian affair, not Syrian," he said. "The Palestinian leaderships have announced their views on their existence in Syria," a reference to remarks by Palestinian officials.

In Gaza, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad official said his group had frozen its activities in Syria. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said Islamic Jihad did not have its own office in Damascus, but had worked out of someone's apartment.

Four days after Powell's talks with Assad, PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril said Syria had not asked him to close down, but he would be ready to "meet the Syrian demands if such demands are useful for Syrian policy."

Mashal said 10 days ago that he was in Qatar, but would return to Syria. "Thank God I have freedom of movement," he said, adding that "even if the [Syrians] take certain steps, the fact remains the Palestinian people will continue to resist the occupation of its land."

Israeli analysts believe the Syrian authorities continue to believe they have room for maneuver on American demands that they cease support for terror groups. A leading Syrian general, Bahjat Suleiman, last week wrote in A Safir, a pro-Syrian daily, that "the Americans demands are known. But what is not known is the extent to which each of them will be met by Syria or Lebanon or both. On that Syria can find much room to maneuver and organize its priorities, and change its priorities, in accordance with developments domestically, regionally and internationally."