Israel strikes Syrian target

Raid on radar station in Lebanon kills 3 for Hezbollah assaults

1st direct attack since '96

Lebanese premier denounces act of `grave aggression'

April 16, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli warplanes attacked a Syrian radar station in Lebanon early today in retaliation for recent Hezbollah guerrilla assaults that killed an Israeli soldier Saturday near the Golan Heights.

Reports from Beirut said as many as three Syrian soldiers had been killed and at least five were wounded. While Damascus was officially silent, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri denounced the raid as "a grave aggression on Lebanon and Syria."

This marked the first time Israel had directly attacked a Syrian target since 1996, and it added a new element of danger to an already tense region.

Israel holds Syria responsible for the Hezbollah guerrillas who have periodically ambushed Israeli troops on the Israel-Lebanon border in the 11 months since Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon. During this period, three Israeli soldiers have been killed and three others have been kidnapped.

Syria maintains a force of 35,000 troops in Lebanon and exercises tight political control over the country.

In a statement, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said continued Hezbollah "terror" is "done with the knowledge and patronage of Syria." The government said it had exercised restraint after previous guerrilla attacks, but Syria "didn't lift a finger" to rein in the guerrillas.

After ending its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in May, Israel threatened to strike at Syrian targets in Lebanon if Hezbollah attacks resumed. But until now Israel hadn't acted on the threat.

Today's airstrike damaged a Syrian radar station at Dahr el Baidar, about 12 miles east of Beirut, high on the hills overlooking the Bekaa Valley, the Israeli army said. The site is on the main Beirut-Damascus highway.

Striking a Syrian target so close to Lebanon's capital, Israel was sending a powerful warning to both countries to restrain the Hezbollah fighters. Syria has long considered Hezbollah useful in maintaining pressure on Israel to abandon the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

Syrian President Bashar el Assad, in office less than a year, has emerged as one of the Arab world's angriest critics of Israel, denouncing its society as even more racist than that of the Nazis. Assad is also patching up relations with Palestinians fighting to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The flare-up comes during a period of brewing tension within Lebanon over the presence of Syrian forces and over Hezbollah's continuing war against Israel.

In recent months, Lebanon's minority Christians have mounted a series of protests demanding that Syria withdraw its troops and end its control over the country. One of the most outspoken critics of Syria is the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir. Recently, he has been joined by Druse politician Walid Jumblatt.

Key Muslim clerics have come out in support of a continued Syrian presence in the country, arguing that it is necessary to prevent a new outbreak of the kind of sectarian warfare that devastated Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s.

The top Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite Muslim, has said his organization would fight to maintain Syria's presence.

At the same time, Hezbollah is starting to draw domestic criticism - even from the Beirut government led by Hariri - for its attacks against Israeli forces. Hariri and others worry that the continued violence on the border is scaring away investors and setting back efforts to rebuild southern Lebanon. Hezbollah had previously been lauded throughout Lebanon as an organization of heroes that had successfully forced out the Israeli occupiers.

The focus of Hezbollah's attacks has been the Shebaa Farms region on the edge of Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights. Israel continued to occupy this area even after its withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, the United Nations certified that Israel's withdrawal was complete.

After the Israeli soldier's death Saturday when the Hezbollah missile struck his tank, Israeli warplanes struck at Hezbollah targets near the Israel-Lebanon border.

Israel retaliated more harshly against Syria today than it did against Hezbollah, which also receives support from Iran, on Saturday

The area remained tense yesterday. Israeli troops fired into the air to disperse a group of stone-throwers on the Lebanese side of the border, witnesses said.

About 150 sons and daughters of Hezbollah guerrillas wounded in the fight against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon joined hundreds of other Lebanese in hurling stones at Israeli observation posts at the Fatima Gate and Sheik Abbad hill on the Lebanese-Israeli border, witnesses said. No injuries were reported.

Staffan De Mistura, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's personal representative for southern Lebanon, met yesterday with Hariri to relay U.N. concern over the Hezbollah attack.

Afterward, Mistura told reporters that "the unfortunate incident took place in a form and a place which is in infringement, a clear infringement of" a U.N. resolution under which Israel withdrew from a stretch of southern Lebanese territory last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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