Syria Says Israel Bombed Military Center near Damascus as Reports Say Arms Convoy Hit near Lebanon

The Syrian army said that an Israeli air strike at dawn on Wednesday targeted a military research center in Jamraya, near Damascus, after several media reports said Israeli warplanes bombed a weapons convoy near the border with Lebanon.

Residents who spoke to Agence France Presse on condition of anonymity, however, said the strike targeted a non-conventional weapons research center some 15 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of the Syrian capital.

"Israeli fighter jets violated our air space at dawn today and carried out a direct strike on a scientific research center in charge of raising our level of resistance and self-defense," the Syrian army's general command said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA.

The strike came "after terrorist groups made several failed attempts in the past months to take control of the site," the statement added of rebel groups fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace via Mount Hermon, or Jabal el-Sheikh in Arabic, at low altitude and under the radar, the army said.

"They... carried out an act of aggression, bombarding the site, causing large-scale material damage and destroying the building," state television quoted the military as saying.

The army added that two site workers were killed in the strike.

Residents told AFP that six rockets hit the complex, leaving it partially destroyed, causing a fire and killing two people.

"This assault is one of a long list of acts of aggression and criminality against the Arabs and Muslims," said the army's statement.

The army denied earlier reports that Israeli forces had launched an air strike overnight on a weapons convoy from Syria near the border with Lebanon.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, security sources told AFP earlier on Wednesday that Israeli forces carried out a strike overnight on a weapons convoy coming from Syria in the Lebanon-Syria border area.

"The Israeli air force blew up a convoy which had just crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon," one source said, without giving a precise location for the attack.

The source said the convoy was believed to be carrying weapons but did not specify what type.

A second security source, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, also told AFP that Israeli warplanes had hit a convoy allegedly carrying weapons to Lebanon but said the incident occurred just inside Syria.

"It was an armed convoy traveling towards Lebanon but it was hit on the Syrian side of the border at around 2330 GMT," the source said.

An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the reports.

Lebanon's National News Agency later on Wednesday denied that an Israeli strike had taken place.

The Associated Press quoted U.S. and regional officials as saying that Israel conducted an airstrike inside Syria overnight near the border with Lebanon, hitting a convoy of trucks.

The regional officials said Israel had been planning in the days leading up to the airstrike to hit a shipment of weapons bound for Hizbullah in Lebanon. They said the shipment included sophisticated, Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would be strategically "game-changing" in the hands of Hizbullah.

A U.S. official said the strike hit a convoy of trucks. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the strike.

The White House declined to comment on the raid as senior U.S. officials hosted Israel's director of military intelligence for talks.

"I don't have any comment for you on those reports," said White House spokesman Jay Carney when asked about the air strike.

"I'd refer you to the government of Israel for questions about deliberations or actions that they may or may not have taken," he said.

News of the raid came as Major General Aviv Kochavi, director of military intelligence for Israeli forces, paid a visit to Washington for talks this week, defense officials said.

Kochavi met the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, on Tuesday and was expected to hold talks with his counterparts in military intelligence at the Defense Department, said two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials said Kochavi's visit had been planned long in advance.

Among Israeli security officials' chief fears is that Hizbullah could get its hands on Syrian chemical arms and SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. If that were to happen, it would change the balance of power in the region and greatly hinder Israel's ability to conduct air sorties in Lebanon.

Israel suspects that Damascus obtained a battery of SA-17s from Russia after an alleged Israeli airstrike in 2007 that destroyed an unfinished Syrian nuclear reactor.

A senior Lebanese security official said there were no Israeli airstrikes inside Lebanese territory. Asked whether it could have been along the border on the Syrian side, he said that that could not be confirmed as it was out of his area of operations.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Earlier the Lebanese military, said twelve Israeli warplanes violated Lebanese airspace in less than 24 hours, flying low in several sorties over villages in southern Lebanon.

A Lebanese security official said there has been increased Israeli activity over Lebanese airspace in the past week.

The flights come amid Israeli concerns about the civil war in neighboring Syria and fears that weapons could reach hostile groups in Syria or Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Earlier this week, Israel moved a battery of its new "Iron Dome" rocket defense system to the northern city of Haifa, which was battered by Hizbullah rocket fire in the 2006 war. The Israeli army called that move "routine."

A Lebanese army communique said the last of the sorties took place at 2:00 am local time Wednesday. It said four warplanes which flew in over the southernmost coastal town of Naqoura hovered for several hours over villages in south Lebanon before leaving Lebanese airspace.

It said similar flights by eight other warplanes were conducted Tuesday.

The Lebanese official said the flights were part of "increased activity" in the past week but did not elaborate. The area of Lebanon where the flights took place borders southern Syria.

Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace are not uncommon and Lebanese authorities routinely lodge complaints at the U.N. against the flights.

A former head of intelligence at Israel's Mossad spy service, Amnon Sofrin, said on Wednesday that the Jewish state "should make any effort to prevent any weapons systems of that kind (chemical) going out to terror organizations."

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem before reports of the attack emerged, Sofrin said Israel was unlikely to carry out air strikes on chemical weapons stocks because of the environmental risks.

"When you go and attack a... chemical weapons depot, you're going to do unwarranted damage, because every part will leak out and can cause damage to many residents," he said.

"But if you know of a convoy leading these kind of (chemical) weapon systems from Syria to Lebanon, you can send a unit to the proper place and try to halt it" on the ground, he added.

On Monday, Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had "urgently dispatched" his national security adviser Yaakov Amidror to Russia to ask Moscow to use its influence in Syria to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons.

Source: Agence France Presse, Associated Press, Naharnet

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