Syrian envoy causes alarm as Israel cuts short military leave

Damascus slaps down ambassador as tension rises across region and fears grow for Palestinian leader
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A senior Syrian diplomat warned yesterday that Damascus would respond militarily if Israel were to carry out another raid on its territory.

The remarks by Syria's ambassador to Spain, Mohsen Bilal, were down played as his "personal understanding" of the country's stance, while the official view, expressed in letters to the United Nations urging that Israel be condemned, was unchanged.

"If Israel attacks Syria one, two and three times, of course the people of Syria and the government of Syria and the army will react to defend ourselves," Mr Bilal said yesterday in Madrid. Asked if that meant responding militarily, he said: "By all means. If Israel continues to attack us and continues its aggression, of course we shall react to the attacks, in spite of the fact that we are fighting for peace and wish to reopen the [1991] Madrid [peace] conference."

The escalation happened as it emerged that Israel has cut short leave for three army battalions, cancelled army training courses and is reportedly considering calling up reservists. The deployment of troops who were on leave or training courses is said to have tripled the army's strength in some areas.

The development has raised concern in the Middle East, where nervousness has been heightened by the recent Israeli air strike on Syria, less than 20 miles from Damascus. The Israeli government insisted the announcements were purely defensive because it had received a number of warnings of imminent attacks.

But there are concerns there could be something more to the plans from the Israeli Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, who reportedly pushed them through despite opposition from the army.

Already this week, there has been a flare-up on the border with Lebanon, in which an Israeli soldier was killed in an exchange of fire with the Lebanese group Hizbollah. Israeli air force jets violated Lebanese airspace in a show of force yesterday, flying as far north as Tripoli and breaking the sound barrier over Beirut, and there are concerns Israel may attempt some form of strike against Hizbollah.

There is concern in the Gaza Strip as well, which the Israeli army has divided into four small enclaves, cutting sections out of the coastal road linking them and preventing Palestinians from travelling from one section to another.

There are fears that this could signal deep Israeli incursions into parts of the Gaza Strip or even the full-scale invasion and reoccupation that Israel has been talking about for more than a year.

Western diplomatic sources say they believe the Israelis have not finished their retaliating for the suicide bombing in Haifa, which killed 19 people on Saturday.

In the West Bank, the Israeli army is said to have reinforced its blockades around Palestinian cities.

A military closure stopping Palestinians travelling in the West Bank or crossing into Israel, originally put in place only for the holiday weekend of Yom Kippur, has now been extended until 22 October.

Speaking in Beirut yesterday, the United Nation's chief Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, warned Israel and Syria to avoid any escalation after Sunday's air strike on what appears to have been a disused militant camp near Damascus. "Attacks and counter-attacks like these are taking us down a steep and precarious path towards more violence," Mr Larsen said. The UN envoy commended Syria's decision to respond to the Israeli attack through diplomatic rather than military means.

In a rebuke to Israel, he said: "The government of Israel must refrain from unilateral use of force and address its complaints through the Security Council and stop violations of Lebanese airspace".

Israeli police have arrested three Palestinians in connection with suicide bus bombings.