Israeli planes buzz summer home of Syrian president, tensions build over kidnapped soldier
DAMASCUS, Syria – Israel said its warplanes buzzed the summer residence of President Bashar Assad Wednesday in a bold warning to the country that shelters the political leader of Hamas, the Islamic militant group holding an Israeli soldier captive in the Gaza Strip.State-run Syrian television, in its account of the incident, said two Israeli planes flew near Syria’s Mediterranean coast early Wednesday and “national air defenses opened fire in the direction of the planes, and they dispersed.” Assad’s summer residence is in the western city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.The Syrian report did not mention the Israeli claim that the fighter jets buzzed Assad’s summer residence.The United States accuses Damascus of harboring groups Washington labels “terrorist” including Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical Palestinian factions.Israeli television reported that four planes were involved in the low-altitude flight, and that Assad was in the residence at the time. Israeli military officials said Assad was targeted because he has sheltered Hamas leaders blamed by Israel for masterminding the kidnapping.Syria hosts Khaled Mashaal, the exiled supreme leader of Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian government. Hamas-linked militants abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, on Sunday and are believed to be holding him in southern Gaza. Shalit was captured Sunday when militants tunneled under a Gaza crossing and killed two other soldiers at a military post.Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said the hard-line Mashaal, who appears to be increasingly at odds with more moderate Hamas politicians in Gaza, is in Israel’s sights for assassination.”Khaled Mashaal, as someone who is overseeing, actually commanding the terror acts, is definitely a target,” Ramon told Army Radio.Israel tried to kill Mashaal in a botched assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997. Two Mossad agents injected Mashaal with poison, but were caught. As Mashaal lay in a Jordanian hospital, King Hussein of Jordan forced Israel to provide the antidote in return for the release of the Mossad agents.”The overflight by two Israeli planes near the Syrian shores is an aggressive act and a provocation,” Syrian television news said, quoting an Information Ministry official it did not identify.Syria denied the Damascus-based Hamas leadership had any connection to the kidnapping.”If the goal of this (overflight) is to blame the political leadership of Hamas for the abduction of the Israeli soldier, then Israel is making a big mistake that goes beyond logic,” the Information Ministry official was quoted as saying. The official said the abduction “is an operation that could not have taken place by remote control.”He said the overflight “reflects Israel’s failure and its domestic troubles, which it is trying to export to the outside as it makes accusations against others.”Wednesday’s flyover was the second time Israel has buzzed Assad’s summer palace. In August 2003, warplanes reportedly flew so low that windows in the palace shattered. At the time, Israel said the flyover was aimed at pressuring Assad to dismantle Palestinian militant groups based in his country.In October 2003, an Israeli warplane bombed an Islamic Jihad training base deep in Syria. It was the first attack on Syrian soil in more than two decades.The airstrike followed a suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad that killed 19 Israelis in a restaurant.Hamas and Islamic Jihad have killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks.The Syrian military rarely fires back on Israeli forces. The two militaries clashed in Lebanon in the 1980s during that country’s civil war.In 1996, Israeli warplanes raided positions in Beirut in response to rocket fire by the militant group Hezbollah. During those raids, Israel said Syrian air defenses fired on its planes, so the Israeli air force demolished a Syrian base.But since then, the Syrians – whose military is far outmatched by Israel’s – are not known to have fired on Israeli forces.Wednesday’s overflights came as Israel bombed Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, knocking out electricity and water supplies for most of its 1.3 million residents. Three bridges also were destroyed to keep militants from moving Shalit.The Hamas-led Palestinian government and the militants holding Shalit called for a prisoner swap with Israel, saying the Gaza offensive would not secure the soldier’s release.Israel has refused to negotiate.—Associated Press reporter Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.