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Israeli defence minister suggests his air force hit Syria, aiming at weapons for Lebanon

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MUNICH - Israel's defence minister strongly signalled Sunday that his country was behind an airstrike in Syria last week, telling a high profile security conference that Israeli threats to take pre-emptive action against its enemies are not empty. "We mean it," Ehud Barak declared.

Israel has not officially confirmed its planes attacked a site near Damascus, targeting ground-to-air missiles apparently heading for Lebanon, but its intentions have been beyond dispute. During the 22 months of civil war in Syria, Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed concern that high-end weapons could fall into the hands of enemy Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militants.

For years, Israel has been charging that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran have been arming Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006.

U.S. officials say the target was a convoy of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Deployed in Lebanon, they could have limited Israel's ability to gather intelligence on its enemies from the air.

Over the weekend, Syrian TV broadcast video of the Wednesday attack site for the first time, showing destroyed vehicles and a damaged building identified as a scientific research centre. The U.S. officials said the airstrike hit both the building and the convoy.

Turkey, which seeks the ouster of Assad and supports the opposition that is fighting against his regime, harshly criticized Israel regarding the airstrike in Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that Israel engaged in "state terror" and he suggested that its allies have nurtured wrongdoing on the part of the Jewish state.

"Those who have from the very beginning looked in the wrong direction and who have nourished and raised Israel like a spoiled child should always expect such things from Israel," Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News quoted Erdogan as saying.

Erdogan, who also criticized Iran for supporting Syria, is a frequent critic of Israel, a former ally of Turkey. Relations hit a low in 2010 when Israeli troops raided a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship, and nine activists on board were killed. Both sides accused each other of initiating the violence.

In his comments Sunday in Munich, Barak came close to confirming that his country was behind the airstrike.

"I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago," Barak told the gathering of top diplomats and defence officials from around the world.

Then he went on to say, "I keep telling frankly that we said — and that's proof when we said something we mean it — we say that we don't think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon." He spoke in heavily accented English.

In Syria, Assad said during a meeting with a top Iranian official that his country would confront any aggression, his first comment on the airstrike.

"Syria, with the awareness of its people, the might of its army and its adherence to the path of resistance, is able to face the current challenges and confront any aggression that might target the Syrian people," Assad was quoted as saying by the state news agency SANA.

He made the remarks during a meeting with Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's National Security Council. Iran is Syria's closest regional ally. Jalili, on a three-day visit to Syria, has pledged Tehran's continued support for Assad's regime.

Jalili, who also serves as his country's top nuclear negotiator, condemned the Israeli raid, stressing that it has proven the "aggressive nature of Israel and its threat of the region's security and stability."

The chief of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards said Sunday that Tehran also hopes Syria will strike back against Israel.

Syrian opposition leaders and rebels have criticized Assad for not responding to the airstrike, calling it proof of his weakness and acquiescence to the Jewish state.

The Syrian defence minister, Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, said Israel attacked the centre because rebels were unable to capture it. Al-Freij called the rebels Israel's "tools." He told the state TV, "The heroic Syrian Arab Army, that proved to the world that it is a strong army and a trained army, will not be defeated."

Ahmad Ramadan, an opposition leader, said Syria's claim that the rebels are co-operating with Israel "is an attempt by the regime to cover its weakness in defending the country against foreign aggression." He spoke by telephone from Turkey.

While Israel has remained officially silent on the airstrike, there seemed little doubt that Israel carried it out, especially given the confirmation from the U.S., its close ally.

Israel has a powerful air force equipped with U.S.-made warplanes and has a history of carrying out air raids on hostile territory. In recent years, Israel has been blamed for an air raid in Syria in 2007 that apparently struck an unfinished nuclear reactor and an arms convoy in Sudan believed to be delivering weapons to Hamas.

Israel has not confirmed either raid, but military officials routinely talk about a "policy of prevention" meant to disrupt the flow of arms to its enemies.

In the days preceding the airstrike, the Israeli warnings were heightened. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a series of dire comments about the threat posed by Syria's weapons.

Israel considers any transfer of these advanced weapons to be unacceptable "game changers" that would change the balance of power in the region.

Israel has grown increasingly jittery as the Arab Spring has swept through the Middle East, bringing with it a rise of hostile Islamist elements. While Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel's northern front with Syria has remained quiet for most of the past 40 years.

If Assad is toppled, the threat of al-Qaida forces operating along Israel's frontier with Syria would pose a new and unpredictable threat. Israel has been racing to reinforce its fences along its northern frontiers with Lebanon and Syria.

In addition, Israel fears that its archenemy Iran, the close ally of Syria and Hezbollah, is moving closer to developing a nuclear weapon.

Israeli leaders have vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, making veiled threats to use force if international diplomacy and sanctions fail.

Israeli defence officials tried to play down Barak's comments, saying that he was voicing a general policy that Israel is ready to defend its interests and not discussing a specific incident. They also noted that he was not speaking in his native Hebrew.

Even so, it seemed that Barak, a former prime minister, military chief of staff and regular participant on the world stage, was sending a message that Israel's warnings are not hollow and that further military action should not be ruled out.

"There is a real danger now that seriously problematic weapons will reach Hezbollah, and Israel is trying to prevent this," said Reuven Pedatzur, a defence analyst at Tel Aviv University. He said the threat has reached the point "where weapons are actually being loaded on trucks and sent on their way. That is new."

Pedatzur said the decision by Syria to try to move weapons to Lebanon could indicate that Assad's days are numbered. Assad may fear that he won't be able to secure the weapons for much longer, or may be under pressure from Iran to transfer the arms to Hezbollah before he is toppled.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in mid-2006 that ended in a stalemate, and Israeli military planners believe it is just a matter of time before another war breaks out.

Israel says Hezbollah has already restocked its arsenal with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, and that obtaining chemical weapons or the advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles would severely hinder Israel's ability to operate in Lebanon.

In Beirut, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying that six Israeli warplanes flew over different areas of the country on Sunday.

____

Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, and Christopher Torchia in Istanbul contributed.

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