First Published: 2006-06-29

Syria vows to defend itself against Israel

Syrian PM says Israeli acts and aggressions in region are result of Arabsí weakness.


Middle East Online

By Roueida Mabardi - DAMASCUS

Otri slammed Israel's overflight

Syria vowed Thursday to defend itself after Israel threatened to kill Hamas militants based in Damascus and flew warplanes over a Syrian presidential palace.

Israel, meanwhile, was on high alert for possible retaliation.

Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri said his country was ready to defend itself against the Jewish state.

"Syria is capable of defending itself against any aggression," Otri told reporters, slamming Wednesday's overflight during which Damascus said its anti-aircraft gunners opened fire as an "act of piracy".

He expressed "surprise at the silence of the international community toward all these Israeli acts and daily aggressions ... This is the result of the weakness of the Arabs."

The Israeli army said it was bracing for any strikes by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah, amid international concerns that the escalating crisis between Israel and the Palestinians could spread across the region.

"This measure has been taken due to concerns that the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah or other organizations will try to trigger an escalation of hostilities by launching border attacks," an army spokeswoman said.

Israel army units were placed on alert along the northern border to "be prepared to face any likely scenario", she said.

Hezbollah, also backed by Syria's main regional ally Iran, has carried out several deadly attacks along the Israeli-Lebanese border since Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Tensions are running high in the Middle East after Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to hunt down a teenage soldier captured by Palestinian militants.

Israel has warned that Palestinian militants of Hamas exiled in Damascus, including political supreme Khaled Meshaal, are clearly in their sights over the kidnapping of 19-year-old Gilad Shalit in an attack on the Gaza border on Sunday that also killed two Israeli soldiers.

"Regimes that support terrorism are the ones playing with the Palestinian people's destiny," Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said Thursday.

Israeli warplanes overflew Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's palace in northern Syria while the leader was inside, an operation Syrian state television called an "aggressive act and an unacceptable provocation".

Russia criticised the overflight.

"Violations of the borders and air space of other states, in this case Syria, are completely unacceptable," foreign ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement.

Israel said that Meshaal was personally involved in escalating violence in the Gaza Strip.

"This wouldn't be happening without the collaboration of the Syrian regime," foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev told CNN television.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan voiced his concern about the escalating Middle East violence, and urged all sides to avoid the conflict spreading.

"We need to be very careful, not only not to escalate but not to expand the area of the conflict," Annan said of the Israeli sortie over Assad's palace.

Meshaal, 50, is one of Israel's most wanted men and famously survived a bungled attempt by Mossad intelligence agents, who tried to poison him in 1997 in Jordan.

"He is definitely in our sights ... He is a target. As someone who is overseeing, actually commanding the terror acts, (he) is definitely a target," said Justice Minister Haim Ramon.

Another exiled Hamas political leader, Mussa Abu Marzuk, said the leadership took the Israeli threats seriously.

"The threats against the leadership of the resistance are not new, it's standard Israeli policy. So we take them seriously and must face them," he said in an interview in Damascus.

But "these threats don't frighten anyone," he said.

Hamas's spiritual leader and co-founder Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantissi were killed in Israeli air strikes within a month of each other in 2004.

Abu Marzuk warned that Israeli military operations would not save the young soldier. "Israel must use political means if it wants its soldier back alive," he said.


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