Syria threatens retaliation over 'Israel strike'

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syria threatened on Thursday to retaliate over what it says was an Israeli air raid, as Damascus allies rushed to denounce the strike which threatened to take the conflict beyond Syria's borders.

Israel maintained a stony silence over Syria's claims, as well as over separate reports that its jets had hit a weapons convoy near the Lebanon border.

Syria's foreign ministry said Israel "and the states that protect it" are responsible for the air strike, and "affirms Syria's right to defend itself and its territory and sovereignty," state news agency Sana reported.

It called on "all the competent UN bodies to take the necessary steps given this grave Israeli violation, and to guarantee that it will not happen again."

United Nations (UN) chief Ban Ki Moon expressed "grave concern" and called on all parties to "prevent tensions or their escalation in the region." He called on all sides to "strictly abide by international law, in particular in respect of territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries in the region," deputy UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.

Damascus's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim Ali, stressed Syria's right to respond to "the Zionist aggression." "The Israelis, and the United States (US) behind them, along with their Arab and regional accomplices, realise that Syria, which defends its sovereignty and territory, may decide to respond by surprise to this aggression."

"It is up to the competent powers to choose the appropriate answer, and to determine the means and the place," Mr Ali added in remarks to Lebanese website Al-Ahad, which is close to the powerful Shi'ite group Hezbollah.

Reaction from close Damascus ally Iran was strident.

Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian warned, without elaborating, that the "Zionist regime's attack on the outskirts of Damascus will have grave consequences for Tel Aviv," the ISNA news agency reported.

In the past, Teheran has said any Israeli attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran.

Russia's foreign ministry said it was "deeply concerned" but was still trying to verify Syria's allegations.

"If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked strikes against targets located on the territory of a sovereign state, which brazenly infringes on the UN Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motive used for its justification," it said.

Late on Wednesday, Syria accused Israel of launching a dawn strike on a military research centre in Jamraya, near Damascus.

"Israeli fighter jets violated our airspace... and carried out a direct strike on a scientific research centre in charge of raising our level of resistance and self-defence," the army general command said, saying two workers were killed.

The army denied separate reports citing security sources that an Israeli strike had targeted a weapons convoy from Syria near the border with Lebanon.

Hezbollah denounced "a new Zionist aggression." Amid speculation a convoy might have been en route to supply Hezbollah, the White House warned Syria not to do so.

Mr Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said that might "further destabilise the region."

Meanwhile, the White House said Vice-President Joe Biden will discuss Syria on Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian opposition chief Moaz al-Khatib.

Israel has frequently warned that if Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons fell into Hezbollah hands, this would be a casus belli.

It has also raised the alarm over long-range Scud missiles or other advanced weaponry, such as anti-aircraft systems and surface-to-surface missiles, being transferred to Hezbollah.

Israeli officials and the military on Thursday refused to confirm or deny any involvement in the alleged attack.

Meanwhile, the main Syrian National Coalition opposition group said any talks on the country's political future must be about the departure of the Assad regime.

A day after SNC chief Moaz al-Khatib expressed openness to discussion with regime members, the political commission issued a statement reaffirming the group's charter that "any negotiation or dialogue must be about the departure of the regime and its pillars."

It also welcomed "any political solution or international effort aimed at achieving that objective."

UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he has no plan to return to Damascus and gave a guarded response to Khatib's offer.

"It is worthy of note," he said, adding that the reaction of the government and other opposition figures would be crucial.

In Brussels, EU foreign ministers discussed whether to lift an arms embargo on Syria, to help the opposition. A decision is expected in mid-February.

On the ground, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 109 people were killed nationwide on Thursday in a conflict the UN says has left more than 60,000 dead in 22 months.