Israel ‘confirms’ Syria raid, Assad lashes out


Israel 'confirms' Syria raid, Assad lashes out

MUNICH, Germany: Israel on Sunday implicitly confirmed it staged an air strike on Syria this week, as President Bashar al-Assad accused the Jewish state of trying to “destabilise” the strife-torn country.

The foreign minister of Damascus ally Iran, meanwhile, said he welcomed Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib’s stated readiness to hold talks with representatives of Assad’s regime.

Four days after an air raid which Damascus said targeted a military complex near the capital, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak spoke to reporters in Munich but refrained from directly confirming that Israel staged the strike.

Barak told the Munich Security Conference it was “another proof that when we say something we mean it.”

He added: “We say that we don’t think that it should be allowable to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon, the Hezbollah from Syria, when Assad falls.”

Wednesday’s air strike targeted surface-to-air missiles and an adjacent military complex believed to house chemical agents, according to a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Damascus has threatened to retaliate, further fuelling fears of a regional spillover of the country’s 22-month conflict which the UN says has already left more than 60,000 people dead.

Forty-eight hours after the reported strike, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told AFP Washington was increasingly concerned that “chaos” in Syria could allow Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah Shiite movement to obtain sophisticated weapons from Damascus.

Ahead of the air raid, Israeli officials cranked up the rhetoric about Syria’s arsenal, which includes chemical agents, warning of dire consequences if they end up in the hands of the Iran-allied Hezbollah.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in the summer of 2006.

In Damascus, Assad on Sunday accused Israel of seeking to “destabilise” Syria, state news agency SANA reported.

The raid “unmasked the true role Israel is playing, in collaboration with foreign enemy forces and their agents on Syrian soil, to destabilise and weaken Syria,” he told Saeed Jalili, who heads Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

But key Damascus and Hezbollah backer Tehran also said on Sunday it welcomed opposition chief Khatib’s recent overture for talks with regime representatives.

“It’s a good step forward,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at the Munich Security Conference, where he said he had held a “very good meeting” with Khatib.

Iran has joined UN Security Council members Russia and China in consistently backing Assad’s regime throughout the almost two year-long conflict which has also forced more than 650,000 people to flee Syria.

After Khatib met Iranian and Russian representatives in Munich, speculation was rife over whether there had been a change in Moscow’s position, but Syria’s state-owned daily Ath Thawra said there has been no such shift.

“Bets that Russia would change its mind and modify its stance clash with its policy, which is commanded by its interests and strategic considerations,” the daily wrote in an editorial.

Moscow is one of Assad’s last remaining allies, and its support for the fight against rebels seeking to overthrow his regime “is becoming more solid each day,” the paper said.

Russia has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions threatening sanctions against Assad over the crackdown in Syria, and has been accused by the armed opposition of being partly responsible for the bloodshed.

On the ground, violence raged across the country a day after at least 145 people were killed, a watchdog said, adding that 73 of them were civilians.

In the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, Islamist rebels made fresh advances on Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“For months, the battle in the east, bordering Iraq, was focused on the countryside. Now the rebels have moved into the city and they are advancing fast,” said the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman.

In the northern city of Aleppo, army rocket fire destroyed a five-storey building, killing at least seven civilians, said the Observatory, which relies on a broad network of activists, doctors and lawyers for its information.