Syrian FM: Israel Gained Most From Imad Mughniyah Assassination

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told Kuwaiti newspaper Al Anba yesterday that "Israel tops the list of those who stood to gain" from the assassination last month of Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyah.

Moallem did not say who was responsible for the assassination, but implied that it was Israel, saying that "one must ask oneself who gained most from it. Israel tops the list of those who stood to gain."

Mughniyah was killed in a car bombing in Damascus on February 12. The Lebanese guerrilla group, of which Mughniyah was second in command, blamed Israel for the killing, but Israel has categorically denied any involvement.

Moallem said Mughniyah used to enter Syria under assumed names, stay in apartments and not take safety precautions.

He said the killing continues to be investigated "night and day" by the Syrian authorities. "Crimes like this one happen in many capitals around the world. I can't call it an 'infiltration,'" he said.

Next week, the 40-day Muslim mourning period will end, prompting Israel to beef up security both in Israel and abroad in anticipation of reprisals against Jewish targets.

Last week, El Al pilots began testing a new system that alerts the authorities in the event of an attempted hijacking and allows air traffic controllers to more easily identify a plane as it approaches Israel.

The system, which had been tested on a handful of planes owned by foreign airliners flying to Tel Aviv, will now undergo daily testing in 25 El Al planes. If the system is considered effective after a month-long trial, it will be extended to include over 750 planes flying to and from Israel.

"Israel is first in the world in finding practical solutions to terrorism in the wake of September 11," Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz said.

The system, developed by Elbit, gives every plane a secret signature which will be sent to a control center in Israel for verification whenever a plane enters its airspace.

The government has also allocated NIS 400 million to equip civilian planes with a system against antiaircraft missiles. It will go on planes flying to destinations deemed risky.

Most of the Moallem interview focuses on the Arab summit in Damascus scheduled for the end of March.

The summit's Web site says the conference will begin on March 25 with a meeting of ambassadors, to be followed by a meeting of foreign ministers.

The heads of Arab states will then convene.

The summit is expected to conclude on March 30.

Moallem added that the heads of Arab states will be able to withdraw the Arab peace initiative with Israel if they so choose during the summit.

"A reasonable man prepares himself for any possibility in the face of the crazy policies. I can't say whether or not there will be war," Moallem said.

Moallem described Hezbollah as "friendly" with Syria but not "loyal" to Syria.