Some citizens of Potomac have a problem with a new resident, Lt. Col. Rifaat Assad, head of the Syrian security forces, who paid $1.1 million in August for the Georgian-style mansion on Halter Court with the three-story marbled foyer and the tennis court.

A number of cots were brought in and men were seen about the premises, leading neighbors to speculate that there were "30 to 40 armed guards." Then there was a fire last month, after which everyone connected with the house vanished, including a couple of maids who were found emerging from a door with briefcases containing guns.

"We're not worried about the two maids," said a man who lives next to the house but declined to be named. "What if one day a car loaded with explosives blows up in front of the place? What if somebody suspicious drives by and all these guards get trigger happy? That's the essence of it."

And another man added, "What is a guy like this doing in a community like this, armed to the teeth and with a security force?"

That was a question that about 40 people wanted answered as they crowded into the meeting of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.

A panel of Montgomery County police and fire officials and a representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had been assembled by the president of the civic group last night to separate the facts from the rumors that have been sweeping some 250 households in the affluent area.

Police Maj. O.W. Sweat told the group that no one was currently living in the house, and that everyone, including Assad, brother of Syrian President Hafez Assad, was believed to have returned to Syria.

Sweat said Montgomery County officials found five weapons -- three handguns and two "long-barrel" guns, the latter inside briefcases carried by two maids who emerged from the house during the fire. Police seized those two weapons, which Sweat said had not been registered.

Assistant Fire Chief James F. Dalton said investigators concluded that the fire "is best categorized as way up in the suspicious category. I would unequivocally say it very probably could have been set."

At one point, a man asked if the house were "a possible location for potential terrorist activities?" Sweat replied, "there is no indication that the house was going to be anything but what the State Department told us--primarily that Mr. Assad came to this country to register his two sons at American University."

What if the mansion's recent residents come back "in force," another man asked. "If they come back in force, we will be there too," said the police official.