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SYRIA: Al Qaeda mastermind said to be captured

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An intriguing morsel about the mysterious leader of a ferocious militant group has been floating around the Lebanese and Syrian media this weekend.

According to a report in the Arab-language newspaper Al Liwaa, Syrian officials captured the leader of the Al Qaeda-linked militant group Fatah al Islam two months ago in Syria.

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The report, summarized in English here, says that Shaker Abssi, a former Libyan air force pilot turned radical Islamist, was captured in the poor Meliha district of southern Damascus and hauled off to prison.

Of Palestinian descent, Abssi, now about 53 years old, has led a storied life.

He piloted MIGs for the Libyan air force in a war against Chad and helped Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas on an early 1980s trip to Latin America.

But as the years went by, he drifted toward Islamic groups and beliefs. Jordanian officials accused him of playing a role in the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. Syrians locked him up the same year, accusing him of plotting against the Damascus government, but let him go in 2005.

He popped up in Lebanon, as leader of Fatah al Islam, a rag-tag group of well-armed Islamic insurgents who fought the Lebanese army for months last year in a battle in and around the seaside Nahr el Bared refugee camp that left more than 400 civilians, soldiers and militants dead.

Abssi vanished into thin air after the battle. He issued statements earlier this year vowing to take revenge against the Lebanese army, which has been the apparent target of two bombing attacks in the last two months.

But according to the Al Liwaa report, Abssi was captured after Syrian intelligence operatives carried out a ‘major house raid’ in Damascus a couple of months ago that netted the militant leader.

The report says Abssi’s loyalists were planning to carry out a suicide bombing at a Damascus soccer stadium during a game a month ago to avenge him, but were thwarted by Syrian security.

The website of the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar reported a month ago that Syrian authorities had told French President Nicolas Sarkozy it had nabbed Abssi.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

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