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Archive for Monday, April 16, 2001

Israeli warplanes strike Syrian targets in Lebanon

April 16, 2001

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— Israeli warplanes destroyed a Syrian radar position deep inside Lebanon early today, killing at least three Syrian troops in Israel's first attack on a Syrian army position in Lebanon since 1996.

Israel said the raid was in retaliation for attacks by the Islamic militant Hezbollah movement on Israeli positions. On Saturday, a Hezbollah rocket killed an Israeli soldier patrolling in a tank near the northern border.

The airstrikes were seen here as a serious escalation in Israel's response to Hezbollah, because they raised the possibility of confrontation with Syria, which maintains 35,000 troops in Lebanon. There was no immediate response from the Syrian government.

But Lebanon immediately condemned the attack. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri called it a "serious aggression against both Lebanon and Syria."

The attack came hours before Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah Khatib was due to arrive in Israel to formally present to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon an Egyptian-Jordanian plan for ending more than six months of Israeli-Palestinian violence and restarting peace talks.

Lebanese sources said that three waves of Israeli warplanes hit the Syrian radar position built on a hill near the main Damascus-Beirut highway, 22 miles east of Beirut, the capital. The site, described as one of the Syrian army's key posts in Lebanon, reportedly was reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. Lebanese sources said that a Syrian officer was among the dead and that at least five other people were wounded. A nearby Syrian military position also was hit.

In a statement issued after the raid, the Israeli government accused Hezbollah of carrying out eight "terror incidents" on the northern border since Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in May. The statement noted that three Israeli soldiers have died and three have been abducted in Hezbollah attacks since the pullout.

Hezbollah and Syria have refused to accept the U.N.-demarcated northern border as final. Hezbollah maintains that a small area called the Shabaa Farms that Israel holds is Lebanese territory. Israel and the U.N. say the land was captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and is therefore not part of any Israeli-Lebanese border dispute. But Hezbollah continues to attack Israeli troops patrolling the area.

Israel accuses Syria of encouraging the Hezbollah attacks as a means to keep pressure on Israel's northern border as it continues to deal with the Palestinian revolt in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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