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Syria fires upon Israeli warplanes

Times Staff Writer

Air defense systems fired at Israeli warplanes that violated Syria’s northern airspace early Thursday, according to Syrian officials, who said the jets broke the sound barrier when they crossed the border after flying in from the Mediterranean Sea.

A Syrian army spokesman told the official Sana news agency that air defense units “confronted” Israeli military jets over Tall Abyad, near the Turkish border, “and forced them to leave after they dropped some ammunition in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage.”

The spokesman added, “We warn the Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act, and retain the right to respond in an appropriate way.”

Israel would not confirm or deny the assertion by the government in Damascus. “It is not our custom to respond to these kinds of reports,” an Israeli government statement said.

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A U.S. official confirmed the incident Thursday.

It comes amid Arab and Israeli media reports over the last few weeks that the region may be headed toward war, provoked either by an Israeli airstrike or a military move by Syrian President Bashar Assad to try to retake the Golan Heights, which Israel captured during the 1967 war. Peace talks between Syria and Israel have been stalled since 2000.

Israel has been agitated by Syrian involvement in Lebanon and its support of the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have tried to calm the rhetoric through diplomatic channels. Israel recently shifted some military exercises from the Golan Heights to southern Israel in an effort to defuse talk of war. Olmert’s government was heavily criticized at home for its handling of last summer’s war in Lebanon with the militant group Hezbollah, and analysts say Israel wants to avoid another conflict.

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Comments by Syrian officials about the incident Thursday suggest that planes may have been making reconnaissance flights near Syria’s border with Turkey. Syria said ammunition was found in the area. It is common for a pilot under attack to drop some ammunition and fuel to increase maneuverability.

Israel previously has acknowledged when its aircraft have entered Syrian airspace, such as when warplanes circled Assad’s presidential compound in coastal Latakia last year as a warning over his government’s suspected support for Hamas.

Israeli media were left to speculate about the reported flight and whether it would heighten border tensions that had abated in recent weeks. Ayala Hasson, diplomatic reporter for Israel’s state-owned Channel One television, said that government censors prevented details from being publicized but that there was no doubt Israel had been carrying out some type of activity in Syrian skies.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.


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