Reports of Scud missiles in Lebanon heighten tensions

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Charges that Syria has transferred Scud missiles to the Lebanon-based radical Islamist group Hezbollah are turning into a new Middle East flashpoint, complicating US efforts to push Israelis and Palestinians into a peace deal, and raising the spectre of new Israel-Lebanon war.

Syria's chargé d'affaires in Washington was summoned to the State Department yesterday to be told of US alarm at the reports.

Rumours of such transfers had been rife for weeks before Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, first made the allegations public last week. Syria has denied the accusations, saying they are an Israeli maneouvre aimed at slowing any rapprochement between Washington and Damascus.

In a statement, the State Department stopped short of directly accusing Syria of having shipped the Scuds, saying the meeting with Zouheir Jabbour, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy, was to review Syria's "provocative" behaviour "concerning the potential transfer of arms to Hezbollah". Later, State Department spokesman P J Crowley said the US had not yet reached a judgement on Syria's role in the affair.

But the meeting was the fifth time of late that the Obama administration has officially raised the issue with Syria, while John Kerry, the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also voiced Washington's objections during a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus this month.

In a separate sign of US displeasure, the Senate is delaying confirmation of the career diplomat Robert Ford as Washington's new envoy to Syria. Mr Ford, an Arab specialist who is currently deputy ambassador to Iraq, would fill a vacancy open since February 2005, when the Bush administration withdrew the previous envoy after the assassination in Beirut of the then Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Syria was widely believed to have had a hand in the killing.

The decision to send a new ambassador was thus a signal of the administration's keenness to re-engage with Syria, to help its efforts to get the deadlocked Middle East peace process moving again. But those efforts were already beset by the row over Israel's continuing settlement building in East Jerusalem, before the added complication of the alleged arms transfers to Hezbollah.

Israeli reports claim that Hezbollah fighters were trained by Syria last summer in the use of Scuds. The weapons are assumed to be Scud Bs with a range of 300km, enabling them to hit most of Israel. But Syria's claim that the plot is an Israeli fabrication has now been echoed by the current Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri's son, Saad Hariri.

Speaking during an official visit to Italy this week, Mr Hariri likened the Scuds to Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction which served to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In doing so, he implicitly raised the prospect of a third Israeli war against Lebanon, after those of 1982 and 2006.

On Monday, Ehud Barak, Israel's Defence Minister, denied that Israel had any intention of starting a new war. Nonetheless, analysts say that Syria, and Hezbollah's other key backer Iran, have re-armed the radical group since the July 2006 war with Israel, in which more than 1,000 Lebanese and over 100 Israelis died, and Lebanon's infrastructure was devastated.