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Syrian girls sing victory songs to celebrate after rebel fighters took over the village of Aljanodiya, northwestern Idlib province, following fighting against pro-regime forces, yesterday. Syria’s opposition chief Moaz Al Khatib said he is ready for dialogue with officials of President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, subject to conditions including that some 160,000 detainees are released.
BEIRUT: Israeli forces attacked a convoy on the Syrian-Lebanese border yesterday, sources told Reuters, after Israelis warned their Lebanese enemy Hezbollah against using chaos in Syria to acquire anti-aircraft missiles or chemical weapons.
“The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon,” said one Western diplomat, adding that the consignment seemed unlikely to have included chemical weapons.
A source among rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad said an air strike around dawn (0430 GMT) blasted a convoy on a mountain track about 5km south of where the main Damascus-Beirut highway crosses the border. Its load probably included high-tech anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.
“It attacked trucks carrying sophisticated weapons from the regime to Hezbollah,” the source said, adding that it took place inside Syria, though the border is poorly defined in the area.
A security official in the region also placed the attack on the Syrian side. A Lebanese security official denied any strike in Lebanon. It was not clear whether special forces took part.
The Israeli government declined comment on the issue. Such a strike would fit its existing policy of pre-emptive covert and overt action to curb Iranian-backed Hezbollah and does not necessarily indicate a major escalation of the war in Syria. It does, however, indicate how the erosion of Assad’s family rule after 42 years is seen by Israel as posing a threat.
Some analysts suggested Hezbollah was moving its own arms caches from stores in Syria, fearing rebels would overrun them. Though Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks from reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.
Yesterday’s strike could have been a rapid response to an opportunity. But a stream of Israeli comment on Syria in recent days was a reminder of a standing policy of pre-emptive strikes and may have been intended to limit surprise in world capitals.
The head of the Israeli air force said only hours before the strike that his corps, which has an array of the latest jet bombers, attack helicopters and unmanned drones at its disposal, was involved in a covert “campaign between wars”.
“This campaign is 24/7, 365 days a year,” Major-General Amir Eshel told a conference on Tuesday. “We are taking action to reduce the immediate threats, to create better conditions in which we will be able to win the wars, when they happen.”
JETS OVER LEBANON
In Israel, where media operate under military censorship, broadcasters immediately relayed international reports of the strike. Channel Two television quoted what it called foreign sources saying the convoy was carrying anti-aircraft missiles.
In Lebanon, the army reported a heavy presence of Israeli jets over its territory throughout the night, following several days of increased incursions into Lebanese airspace. Israeli jets routinely fly and there have been unconfirmed reports in previous years of air strikes on Hezbollah arms shipments.
An Israeli attack inside Syria could be diplomatically provocative, particularly since Assad’s Iranian ally said on Saturday that it would view such a strike as an attack on itself. Israel views Iran as its principal enemy and is engaged in a bitter confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set for a new term after an election earlier this month, told his cabinet that both developments in Iran and turmoil in Arab states, notably Syria and Egypt, meant Israel must be strong.
The Israeli military confirmed this week that it had lately deployed two batteries of its Iron Dome rocket-interceptor system to around the northern city of Haifa, which came under heavy Hezbollah missile fire during a brief war in 2006.
Israeli Vice Premier Silvan Shalom said on Sunday that any sign that the Syrian army’s grip on its presumed chemical weapons stocks was slipping could trigger Israeli intervention. But Israeli sources said on Tuesday that Syria’s advanced conventional weapons, much of it Russian-built hardware able to destroy Israeli planes and tanks, would represent as much of a threat to Israel as chemical arms in the wrong hands.
In Kuwait, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the conflict had wrought a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. In a pointed message for Syria’s leader, Ban said that Assad bore primary responsibility to stop his country’s suffering after nearly two years of conflict that have cost an estimated 60,000 lives.
“Every day Syrians face unrelenting horrors,” Ban told the gathering in Kuwait, adding these included sexual violence and arbitrary killings. Sixty-five people were shot dead execution-style in Aleppo on Tuesday, opposition activists said.
“We cannot go on like this.... He should listen to the voices and cries of so many people,” Ban said. “I appeal to all sides and particularly the Syrian government to stop the killing ... in the name of humanity, stop the killing, stop the violence.”
But in the Syrian capital Damascus, the thud of artillery drowned out any optimism on the streets.
Ban said that much more remained to be done to address Syria’s humanitarian emergency. “The situation in Syria is catastrophic and getting worse every day.” Four million Syrians inside the country need food, shelter and other aid in the midst of a freezing winter, and more than 700,000 more are estimated to have fled to countries nearby.Reuters