BY BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT (AP) — Israeli warplanes struck a military position near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria early Thursday, killing two soldiers and causing material damage, the Syrian army said.
The airstrike targeted a facility near the town of Masyaf that some said was tied to Syria’s chemical weapons program, in a stronghold of President Bashar Assad that is also heavily protected by the Russians.
In a statement, the Syrian army said the Israeli warplanes fired several missiles while in Lebanese air space, and warned of the “dangerous repercussions of such hostile acts on the security and stability of the region.”
There was no immediate comment from Israel, which has rarely confirmed or commented on such strikes.
While largely staying out of the Syrian civil war, Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes against suspected arms shipments believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, which is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces. Israel has also struck several Syrian military facilities since the conflict began, mostly near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Assad, not wanting to draw Israel into his country’s war, has never responded.
Thursday’s air raid came a day after a U.N. probe found the Syrian government responsible for a chemical attack in April in northern Syria that killed more than 80 people, saying it was one of 20 chemical weapons attacks in the past four years carried out by the Syrian government. The U.S. fired missiles at a Syrian air base in response to April’s attack.
It was not immediately clear if the facility struck Thursday was used for the production or storage of chemical arms. Syria denies having or using such weapons.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said two facilities were hit in Thursday’s airstrike, a scientific research center and a nearby military base where short-range surface-to-surface missiles are stored. He said the attack killed two people and wounded five.
“Many explosions were heard in the area after the air raid,” said Abdurrahman, whose group relies on a network of activists across the country. He said some of the blasts may have been secondary explosions from a missile storage facility being hit.
He said Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian military officials often visit the site, adding that those killed and wounded were Syrians.
A local opposition media activist said the facility that was struck is a factory that produces missiles under the supervision of Iranian experts. He said those killed and wounded were Syrian soldiers guarding the facility, and that he did not know if any Iranians were wounded. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
Days after the April 4 chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center. Washington said the agency is responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them. It was not immediately clear if that center was the target of Thursday’s air raid.
The airstrike is the furthest north since Russia joined the war in September 2015 with a major air campaign to aid Assad’s forces.
In October 2016, Russia deployed a battery of S-300 air defense missile systems to protect a Russian navy facility in the Syrian port of Tartus and Russian navy ships in the area. Moscow also has long-range S-400 missile defense systems and an array of other surface-to-air missiles at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.
Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser and a former general, said the strike targeted a weapons development and manufacturing site that was producing arms for Hezbollah.
Former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin wrote on Twitter that the facility reportedly struck by Israel produces precision missiles, chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Such a strike is “exceptional,” he said, and shows that “Israel won’t allow the stockpiling and production of strategic arms.”
In 2013, Syria said Israeli warplanes carried out an air raid on a scientific research center in the Damascus suburb of Jamraya.
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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