January 13, 2017 / 12:21 AM / 9 months ago

Syrian army says Israel fires rockets at air base near Damascus

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian army command said on Friday that Israeli artillery fired rockets at a major military airbase outside Damascus, and warned Israel of repercussions for what it called a “flagrant” attack.

Explosions were heard in the capital, and residents in the southwest suburbs saw a large plume of smoke rising from the area, while video footage downloaded on social media showed flames leaping from parts of Mezzah military airport’s compound.

Syrian state television quoted the army as saying several rockets were fired from an area near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel just after midnight which landed in the compound of the airbase, used by President Bashar al-Assad’s elite Republican Guards.

“Syrian army command and armed forces warn Israel of the repercussions of the flagrant attack and stresses its continued fight against (this) terrorism and amputate the arms of the perpetrators,” the army command said in a statement.

Israel neither confirms nor denies involvement in striking targets inside Syria. Asked about Friday’s incident, an Israeli military spokeswoman said: “We don’t comment on reports of this kind.”

The Syrian army statement did not disclose if there were any casualties, but said the rockets caused a fire. Earlier, state television said several major explosions hit Mezzah military airport’s compound and ambulances were rushed to the area.

Government forces had in the past used the base to fire rockets at former rebel-held areas in the capital’s suburbs.

The airport, located just a few kilometres from Assad’s presidential palace, had been a base used to fire rockets at former rebel-held areas in the suburbs of Damascus.

Israel in the past has targeted positions of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group inside Syria where the Iranian-backed group is heavily involved in fighting alongside the Syrian army.

In November, the Syrian army said Israeli jets fired two missiles on an area west of the capital, close to the Damascus Beirut-highway, in an attack mounted from Lebanese air space.

Diplomatic sources say Israel has in the past few years targeted advanced weapons systems, including Russian-made anti-aircraft and Iranian-made missiles and bombed the elite Fourth Armoured Division base on Qasioun mountain in the capital.

An air strike in Syria in December 2015 killed a prominent Hezbollah leader, Samir Qantar. Israel welcomed Qantar’s death, saying he was preparing attacks from Syrian soil, but stopped short of confirming responsibility for eliminating him.

Earlier that year, an Israeli air strike in Syria killed six members of Hezbollah, including a commander and the son of late military chief Imad Moughniyah near the Golan Heights.

Israeli defence officials have voiced concern that Hezbollah’s experience in the Syrian civil war, where it has played a significant role and recently helped the Syrian army regain the eastern sector of the city of Aleppo, has strengthened it.

Rebels operating in the area have said Hezbollah’s major arms supply route into Damascus from the Lebanese border has been targeted on several occasions in recent years by air strikes. This has included strikes on warehouses and convoys of weapons.

Damascus airport was also hit by air strikes in 2013.

Israel has been largely unscathed by the Syrian civil war, with only sporadic incidents of stray shells falling on its territory.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Hugh Lawson

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