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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A senior Israeli minister accused Syria on Sunday of committing genocide during its crackdown on a 15-month uprising and made the Jewish state's most explicit call yet for military action against its Arab neighbour.
Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz urged world powers to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the same way that last year's Western-backed campaign in Libya overthrew former strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
In separate comments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Syrian government was slaughtering civilians with the support of Israel's arch-foes Iran and Hezbollah. "The world should understand what kind of environment we live in," he said in remarks to his cabinet that were later broadcast.
Israel has until recently been slow to call for Assad's fall, wary of worsening the turmoil in Syria. The countries are enemies but have been in a mostly stable stand-off for decades.
With hourly media reports in Israel of Syrian civilian deaths, public anger has been growing and Israeli officials have been stepping up their criticism.
Israeli ministers have called for unspecified tougher action against Syria in recent weeks. Senior officials, speaking off the record, have confirmed that eventual action might include foreign military intervention.
"A crime against humanity, genocide, is being conducted in Syria today. And the silence of the world powers is contrary to all human logic," Mofaz told Israel's Army Radio.
"Since in the not-distant past the powers chose military intervention in Libya, here the required conclusion would be immediate military intervention to bring down the Assad regime."
Talk of genocide is especially loaded in Israel, which was founded in part as a haven for survivors of the Holocaust.
Mofaz, a former top general and political centrist who became junior partner in Netanyahu's conservative coalition government last month, criticised Russia for arming Damascus.
"Best-case, this is irresponsibility, and worst-case, it is a partnership in the slaughter," Mofaz said.
A longtime Syrian ally, Russia opposes outside intervention against Assad. Moscow has denied supporting any side in the conflict or providing arms that could be used in a civil war.
Mofaz said Israel had limited options on Syria.
"We cannot get involved, for understandable reasons. But I think that the West, led by the United States, has an interest in guarding the threshold (so) genocide does not take place."
Assad's government has condemned the killing of civilians in Syria, blaming anti-regime insurgents for the bloodshed.
Netanyahu sought to broaden responsibility out beyond Damascus, saying: "This is a slaughter carried out not only by the Syrian government. It is being helped by Iran and (Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group) Hezbollah."
Israel's main regional worry is Tehran's nuclear programme, which world powers have been trying to curb through sanctions and negotiations, so far with limited results. Iran dismisses accusations it is trying to develop nuclear bombs.
Netanyahu has steered clear of explicitly calling for military intervention in Syria, telling Bild newspaper last week: "That's a decision for the leading powers who are now talking about it. The less I say as prime minister of Israel, the better."
A Netanyahu spokesman declined to comment on Mofaz's remarks.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens