Israel launches strikes on Syria in retaliation for bomb attack

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The Independent Online

In a potentially dangerous widening of the Middle East conflict, Israel carried out air strikes yesterday near Damascus, the deepest attack inside Syria for 30 years.

Israel claimed the target of its attack was a training camp used by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, and said the air strike was in retaliation for a suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad which killed 19 people, four of them children, in a restaurant in Haifa on Saturday.

The air strike on Syria was the first time since the start of the intifada three years ago that the conflict has spread beyond Israel and the borders of the occupied territories.

The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session last night to discuss the attack at the request of Syria whichd demanded condemnation.

Syria's Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Shara, accused Israel of striking a civilian site, but added that Syria would exercise restraint.

The United States urged both countries to avoid raising the stakes further. "We urge all sides to exercise restraint and to keep in mind the consequences of their actions," the State Department said in a statement.

That message was reinforced by President George Budsh in a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The US considered Syria to be "on the wrong side" in its "war on terror", but an official added: "We urge both Israel and Syria to avoid actions that heighten tensions or could lead to hostilities."

A spokesman for the British Government said: "While Israel is entitled to take steps to protect itself against terrorist attack, these steps should be within international law." France and Germany criticised the attack as "unacceptable", and the Arab League condemned it.

There was confusion over the target at the bombed area at Ein Saheb, 14 miles north-west of Damascus, which was sealed off by Syrian security services yesterday.

A second Palestinian militant faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), said the area had been one of its training camps, but was now disused and was largely empty when it was hit. There was no official word on casualties, but a PFLP-GC spokesman said one civilian guard had been slightly injured.

Israel produced undated video footage, said to be from Iranian television, which showed the camp. In it, a military officer displayed a room full of weapons with Hebrew markings that appeared to have been captured from Israel. "This was a measured response," said Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. "We did not attack Syrian targets, but very specific camps used to train the terrorists."

He warned that Israel may attack Syria again if it continues to allow Palestinian militant groups to operate there. "The operation ... was intended to send that message off to Syria as well to the leaders of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas," he said.

Syria closed the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus after the Iraq war, but is believed to continue to allow Palestinian militant groups to operate on its territory. Hamas vowed retaliation for the Israeli attack.

There was suspicion over the timing of the strike, which came a day before the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war with Syria and Egypt, when Israel last struck so deep inside Syrian territory.

There was also speculation that the Israeli government may have ordered the attack on Syria to divert attention from its failure so far to follow through on its threat to expel the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli public, exhausted by suicide bombings, is demanding action from Mr Sharon, but the US opposes expelling Mr Arafat and the Israeli government appears to be having second thoughts.

Mr Arafat named Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, as head of a seven-member emergency cabinet and cut short consultations about the formation of the full Palestinian Cabinet - a move that authorises Mr Qureia to take immediate action after the Haifa bombing.

The Israeli military also mounted two air strikes on Gaza overnight, but both were on empty houses and there were no casualties. In Jenin, the Israeli army demolished the home of the suicide bomber, Hanadi Jaradat, a 21-year-old student lawyer.