Beirut: Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the Syrian capital today, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be on their way to Lebanon`s Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.
The attack, the second in three days, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel`s involvement in Syria`s bloody civil war. Syria`s state media reported that Israeli missiles struck a military and scientific research center near the Syrian capital and caused casualties.
An intelligence official in the Middle East, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose information about a secret military operation to the media, confirmed that Israel launched an airstrike in Damascus early today but did not give more precise details about the location.
The target was Fateh-110 missiles, which have very precise guidance systems with better aim than anything Hezbollah has in its arsenal, the official said.
The airstrikes come as Washington considers how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war. President Barack Obama has described the use of such weapons as a "red line," and the administration is weighing its options, including possible military action.
Iran condemned the airstrikes but gave no other hints of a possible stronger response from Tehran or its allies. Israel has said it wants to stay out of the brutal Syria war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in mid-2006 that ended in a stalemate.
Syria`s state news agency SANA reported that explosions went off at the Jamraya military and scientific research center near Damascus and said "initial reports point to these explosions being a result of Israeli missiles." SANA said there were casualties but did not give a number.
Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said the strikes occurred around 3 am. "Damascus shook. The explosion was very, very strong," said al-Shami adding that one of the strikes occurred near the capital`s Qasioun mountain that overlooks Damascus.
He said the raid near Qasioun targeted a military position for the elite Republican Guards that is in charge of protecting Damascus, President Bashar Assad`s seat of power.
Mohammed Saeed, another activist who lives in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said "the explosions were so strong that earth shook under us." He said the smell of the fire caused by the air raid near Qasioun could be felt miles away.
Israel has said it will not allow sophisticated weapons to flow from Syria to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, an Iranian-backed Assad ally and a heavily armed foe of the Jewish state.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel`s military intelligence, said the strike is a signal to Tehran that Israel is serious about the red lines it has set.