Syria was considering its response last night after an Israeli warplane violated Syrian air space and was accused of dropping ammunition inside the country. The incident, near the Turkish border on Wednesday, came just after midnight at a time when tensions are running high between the two neighbours. It prompted Syrian air defence units to open fire on the Israeli jets, Syrian officials said.
The Israeli aircraft "infiltrated Syrian air space through the northern border, coming from the direction of the Mediterranean, and headed towards northeastern territory, breaking the sound barrier," said the official Syrian news agency, Sana. "The Syrian Arab Republic warns the government of the Israeli enemy and reserves the right to respond according to what it sees fit."
A Syrian official added: "They dropped bombs on an empty area while our air defences were firing heavily at them." Residents said they heard the sound of five planes or more above the Tal al-Abiad area on Syria's border with Turkey, about 100 miles north of the Syrian city of Rakka.
The Israeli army refused to comment on the incident but no casualties or damage were reported. "We cannot discuss military operations," a spokesman said.
However, it is not the first such incident and there was speculation yesterday that the Israeli planes may have jettisoned their fuel tanks over the deserted area to make them more manoeuvrable, possibly after being targeted by Syrian forces. The Israelis may also have been probing Syria's defences, or could simply have experienced a technical problem during a flight.
In 2003, Israeli jets struck what Israel described as a Palestinian training camp on Syrian soil, in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Haifa on the eve of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Rime Allaf, a Syrian defence specialist based in Damascus, said yesterday: "The Israeli military sends what it calls 'messages to Syria' in this way."
In June last year, Israeli jets buzzed the summer residence of Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, after the Palestinian militant group Hamas, whose leader is sheltered by Damascus, captured an Israeli soldier in Gaza. Aircraft also broke the sound barrier over his palace in Damascus at the beginning of the Lebanon war, in what was seen as a clear message about Syria's support for the guerrilla group Hizbollah. Mohsen Bilal, the Syrian Information minister, said: "Israel does not want peace. It cannot survive without aggression, treachery and military messages." The recent offer to Israel of $30bn (£14.8bn) in American aid over the next 10 years had encouraged the Israeli government to "such arrogance that it delivered this morning message", he claimed. Mr Bilal added that his government was "seriously studying the nature of the response" but did not say whether it would be military or diplomatic.
In the past, Syria has approached the UN Security Council in response to Israeli violations of Syrian territorial integrity and has not retaliated directly. But the two nations have been sending mixed messages to each other about their peace prospects. Syria has stepped up calls for talks to discuss the return of the strategic Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. But since last summer's 34-day Lebanon war, in which Hizbollah fighters stood up to Israeli forces, a hardline faction in the leadership in Damascus have argued that Syria "should be ready to show it is ready for war if need be", Ms Allaf said.