Israeli warplanes launch airstrike against Syrian radar
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Israeli warplanes attacked Syrian radar in Lebanon’s central mountains early Monday, the first strike in five years against the Syrian military. One Syrian soldier was reported killed and four others wounded.
”Air force planes this evening attacked a radar target of the Syrian army,” the Israeli military said in a statement, adding the fighting was in response to Hezbollah attacks, most recently last week when an Israeli soldier was killed.
Israel has repeatedly accused Lebanon and Syria, the main power broker in Beirut, of responsibility for attacks by the anti-Israel guerrillas and threatened to retaliate. But Monday’s raid was an unexpectedly strong response and it appeared to increase the risk of military escalation along Israel’s tense northern border.
The statement said the raid focused on Dahr el-Baidar, where Syrian troops maintain radar bases with tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The Israelis said all its planes returned safely. Lebanese security sources said one Syrian soldier was killed and four others wounded. About 10 ambulances were spotted. Shrapnel from the bombs littered a highway, several hundred yards away.
But there was no immediate word on damage as at least three impacts were heard shortly after midnight in Dahr el-Baidar, a mountain pass on the road between Beirut, the Lebanese capital, and Damascus, Syria’s capital.
The Israeli jets roared on several runs as tracers from ground anti-aircraft were fired at the warplanes.
The strike was the first by Israeli warplanes on targets deep inside Lebanon since Israeli forces withdrew from the southern part of the country in May. It was also the first time that Syrian positions were targeted by the Israeli army since 1996, when Israeli helicopter gunships blasted Syrian army positions near Beirut airport during a bombing campaign against Lebanon.
Until Monday, Israeli retaliation for Hezbollah attacks consisted mainly of artillery bombardments against the guerrillas. Israel stopped short of attacking the Syrian armed forces to avoid a major military conflict. The Syrians also endeavored to avoid direct confrontation with the Israelis.
Lebanon immediately condemned the attack. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri described the air raid as a ”serious aggression against both Lebanon and Syria.”
In a statement issued hours after the attack, Hariri urged the international community to move quickly to contain the tension.
It was not immediately clear how Syria and Hezbollah will react.
Syria, which has 30,000 troops in Lebanon, has radar stations in the Dahr el-Baidar area and maintain bases and checkpoints for its forces along the crucial highway in mountains with an altitude of over 6,000 feet. The area is strategic because it overlooks much of the Mediterranean coastline and the eastern Bekaa Valley, all the way to the Anti-Lebanon mountain range that forms the border between Lebanon and Syria.
On Saturday, Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said if Hezbollah attacks continued, ”we will be forced to take the necessary action and exercise self defense and strike at Hezbollah targets.”
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer late Saturday described the Hezbollah attack as ”a sick provocation that has no explanation.”
He said his government sent ”a clear message to the governments of Lebanon and Syria that we see them as responsible for what happened.”
On Sunday, a special U.N. envoy said the Hezbollah attack in the disputed Chebaa Farms border zone in southern Lebanon violated the U.N.-drawn line between Lebanon and Israel.
The Israeli soldier was killed when Hezbollah guerrillas hit an Israeli tank with a Sagger missile in the Chebaa Farms area, where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. Israeli warplanes and artillery retaliated by blasting suspected guerrilla hide-outs on the edge of the Chebaa Farms.
The area remained tense Sunday. Israeli troops fired into the air to disperse a group of stone-throwers on the Lebanese side of the border, witnesses said.
About 150 sons and daughters of Hezbollah guerrillas wounded in the fight against Israeli forces in south Lebanon joined hundreds of other Lebanese in hurling stones at Israeli observation posts at the Fatima Gate and Sheik Abbad hill on the Lebanese-Israeli border, witnesses said. No injuries were reported.
Staffan De Mistura, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s personal representative for southern Lebanon, met Sunday with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to relay U.N. concern over the Hezbollah attack.
Afterward, Mistura told reporters, ”The unfortunate incident took place in a form and a place which is in infringement, a clear infringement of” a U.N. resolution under which Israel withdrew from a stretch of southern Lebanese territory last year.
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