Israeli strike on Syria 'targets missiles bound for Hizbollah'

If confirmed, such an Israeli military move against Syria could increase tensions between the countries that consider each other enemies. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV // Israel carried out a strike against Syria yesterday that appeared to target a shipment of advanced missiles bound for Lebanon's Hizbollah group, news organisations reported yesterday, citing unnamed Israeli and US officials.

If confirmed, the attack - which targeted sophisticated "game changing" arms and not chemical weapons, according to the reports by Reuters and the Associated Press - would be the second strike this year that Israel carried out against Syria.

Such an Israeli military move against Syria could step up tensions between two neighbours that consider each other enemies, coming just three months after Israeli officials strongly indicated that the country was behind a strike in Syrian territory against a convoy that it believed to be carrying anti-aircraft weapons to Hizbollah.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has warned in recent months that Israel would act militarily to prevent weapons - including chemical arms - from reaching Hizbollah or Islamist groups fighting against forces of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in the country's two-year-old civil war. Israel fought a 34-day war with Lebanon in 2006 and says Hizbollah has been building up its arsenal - especially of long-range rockets - in preparation for another round of fighting.

Spokespeople for the Israeli army and for Mr Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the reports yesterday.

Syria yesterday appeared to play down reports of the strike, with Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, telling the Reuters news agency: "I'm not aware of any attack right now."

The strike took place just hours after the Israeli premier convened his security cabinet in Jerusalem on Thursday for a secret meeting, typically a sign of imminent action, Reuters reported.

News of the attack first emerged with media reports in the US, including the CNN television channel, saying that Israeli carried out the strike without its jets entering Syrian airspace.

That could take place with so-called "standoff bombs," which may have been fired from aircraft over Lebanese territory, then guided towards their targets with the use of satellites, according to Amos Harel, the security reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Israel may have chosen to use such bombs to prevent any attacks on its jets by Syria's Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, as well as to avoid having Syria possibly accuse Israel of violating its airspace, Mr Harel wrote yesterday.

As possible indications that such bombs were used, Israeli and Lebanese media reported yesterday that more than a dozen Israeli aircraft flew over southern Lebanon at low altitudes between Thursday night and early Friday. That prompted Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president, to call on the international community yesterday to urge Israel to stop violating Lebanese airspace.

The strike may potentially spur more violence along Israel's border with Syria. The frontier between the two countries has been relatively quiet ever since the two countries fought each other in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war until several incidents in recent months in which mortar shells from Syria fell on Israeli-controlled territory. Adding to the tensions, Syrian government troops have withdrawn from border positions and patrols by UN peacekeepers have also been cut down, with Syrian rebel groups moving in to fill the vacuum.

Signs have emerged of Israeli preparation for an escalation along the border. Last week, the Israeli military called up more than 2,000 reserve troops and carried out a large-scale military exercise along its northern border in a drill the army later claimed had been scheduled months beforehand. Israel has also been modernising its fence along the shared border with Syria and bolstering security cooperation with neighbouring Jordan, which also shares a border with Syria.

The attack comes amid growing international concern over Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and the possibility that it may fall into the hands of Hizbollah or Islamic groups that may then use it against Israel and other targets.

Israel appears to be pressing the US and other western countries to intervene in the Syrian conflict to stop such a scenario, with the Israeli army's top intelligence analyst last month accusing the Syrian regime of repeatedly using chemical weapons against rebel groups in recent months. Barack Obama, the US president, has called the use of chemical weapons a "red line" and US media reported that his administration is considering possible intervention in the Syrian conflict, including military action or supplying rebel forces with equipment.