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|Israeli Attack Prompts Syria Troop Alert in Lebano|
|04/16/01 at 15:01:03|
Israeli Attack Prompts Syria Troop Alert in Lebanon
By Brian Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Tension rose sharply in the Middle East on Monday after Israeli planes attacked a Syrian radar station in Lebanon and Palestinians fired mortar bombs into a town in southern Israel.
Security sources in Beirut said the 35,000 Syrian troops based in Lebanon were put on high alert after the Israeli raid, which killed three Syrian soldiers and destroyed the radar station in east Lebanon's Bekaa valley.
At least five Palestinian mortar bombs slammed into the southern Israeli town of Sderot, about three miles from Gaza, but caused no casualties or damage, military officials said.
The mortar bombs, striking deeper into Israel than any others since the start of the Palestinian uprising for independence nearly seven months ago, landed just down the road from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites)'s ranch.
Israeli forces swiftly responded by pouring tank shells and machinegun fire on three Palestinian security positions in Gaza, wounding at least two policemen, Palestinian officials said.
Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the prime minister was holding consultations with security officials and further retaliation was likely.
``We are unlikely to let it go as it is and deliberations are under way to decide what further steps should be taken to bring about the cessation of such hostilities,'' Gissin said. ``The consultations are likely to result in further action later on.''
Washington called on all sides to exercise restraint after the early morning Israeli air raid 22 miles east of Beirut. Lebanese security sources said three Syrians were killed and six wounded. A Syrian official said one soldier was killed.
It was the first Israeli air strike on a Syrian position in Lebanon since April 1996 and followed the death of an Israeli soldier in a missile attack by Hizbollah guerrillas on the Israel-Lebanon border on Saturday.
Israel charges that Hizbollah acts under the patronage of Syria, the main powerbroker in Lebanon.
There were warnings the bombing could lead to wider conflict and Israel's defense minister said the rules of the game had changed in Lebanon since Israel ended its occupation of the south of the country nearly a year ago.
U.S. Urges Restraint
``The United States is urging all parties to exercise restraint. It's another reminder that we need to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer (news - web sites) told reporters.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (news - web sites), in Amman for talks with Jordan's King Abdullah, told reporters the Israeli air raid was a ''dangerous escalation that drags the whole region into a very critical, bad and grave situation.''
The air raid cast a shadow over prospects for a Jordanian-Egyptian plan brought to Jerusalem on Monday by Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdulilah al-Khatib, and aimed at easing the months-long Israeli-Palestinian violence.
A U.S.-hosted meeting of Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs planned for Monday in Jerusalem was canceled after the air raid, Israeli government sources said.
Condemning the Israeli attack as an ``unjustified escalation,'' Khatib held talks with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who promised Israel would study the plan, which calls for the lifting of an Israeli travel ban on Palestinians and the eventual resumption of peace talks.
Khatib also met Sharon in the highest-level visit to Israel by an Arab official since Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled last July.
Israel has already poured cold water on the Jordanian-Egyptian initiative because it sets a timetable for a final peace agreement. Israel also insists there can be no peace negotiations without an end to violence.
Syria Condemns Dangerous Escalation
In its first official comment, Syria said the Israeli attack was a ``dangerous escalation'' that would destabilize the region.
``Syria considers the aggression as a challenge to the will of the Arab nation...Syria holds Israel responsible for this dangerous escalation and reserves its right to defend itself against any aggression,'' an official spokesman said in a statement received by Reuters.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, after a telephone call with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the raid ``revealed anew the blood-colored policies'' of Sharon, Israel's leading hawk and architect of its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
``These policies will only lead to comprehensive confrontation,'' a presidency statement quoted Lahoud as saying.
The strike followed a special Israeli security cabinet meeting chaired by Sharon. Hizbollah has killed three of Israeli soldiers and kidnapped three since the Israeli army ended its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon in May last year.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel carried out the raid because its patience was at an end. ``We cannot just sit and suffer day and night and live under shelling and harassment and say thank you. This comes to its end,'' he told reporters.
``In fact, we informed those responsible for what happens there, and that is the Syrians, that the rules of the game have changed (in Lebanon),'' Ben-Eliezer said.
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