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Russia says Israeli air strikes on Syria threatened two civilian flights

Russia's Ministry of Defence says reported Israeli missile strikes on Tuesday were 'a gross violation of the sovereignty of Syria'
The downing of a Russian plane in September pushed Moscow to activate a long-postponed delivery of its S-300 air defence missile system to Syria (AFP)

Russia's Ministry of Defence claimed on Wednesday that Israeli missile strikes near Damascus the previous day had directly threatened two civilian flights, saying the actions were "a gross violation of the sovereignty of Syria".

"The provocative actions of the Israeli air force... directly threatened two airliners," ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

Konashenkov said the attack came from over Lebanese territory and occured as "two airliners, not from Russia, were preparing to land at the airports of Beirut and Damascus".

He said restrictions were imposed on the use of Syrian government forces' air defence systems "to prevent a tragedy". One of the planes was redirected to a Russian airbase within Syria.

Syrian air defences had destroyed 14 of 16 Israeli missiles launched against unspecified targets near Damascus on Tuesday, the spokesman said.

Without directly mentioning the air strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said: "We are standing steadfast on our red lines in Syria and everywhere else."

Late on Wednesday, an Israeli security official told AP news agency that Israel carried out an overnight airstrike in Syria, saying a series of Iranian targets were hit.

The official said the airstrike hit Iranian storage and logistic targets being used to transfer weapons to Lebanese group Hezbollah. Israel also took out a Syrian anti-aircraft battery near Damascus that fired at the Israeli warplanes, the official said.

According to Syrian news agency SANA, Israeli aircraft struck an arms depot west of the capital from Lebanese airspace.

Translation: Footage of the launching of anti-aircraft missiles from Syria

An arms depot was hit and three soldiers were injured due to the attack, SANA said citing a military source.

"Our air defences confronted hostile missiles launched by Israeli war planes from above the Lebanese territories and downed most of them before reaching their targets," the source said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said Israeli missiles had targeted western and southwestern Damascus rural areas.

"A number of missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah or Iranian forces," the observatory said.

Addressing an Israeli Air Force pilots' course graduation ceremony at the Hatzerim Air Force Base on Wednesday, Netanyahu said: "We are not prepared to accept the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria which is directed against us.

We will act against it vigorously and continuously including during the current period.

"I have said that we will not be deterred from doing what is necessary. Therefore, we are called upon and we act.

"[US] President [Donald] Trump’s decision to withdraw the American soldiers from Syria will not change our policy."

Trump announced last week that he intended to withdraw US forces from Syria, saying the Islamic State (IS) were defeated there.

While some 2,000 US troops are in Syria with the stated goal of IS, Washington has warned against growing Iranian influence in the war-torn country. 

Hezbollah officials

A report in the US weekly Newsweek said several senior Hezbollah officials were wounded in Tuesday's air strikes.

Citing a US Defence Department source familiar with the details of the attack via a senior Israeli representatives, the report said Israeli aircraft struck a few minutes after the officials boarded a plane to Iran.

However, Major General Amos Yadlin, a former director of Israeli Military Intelligence, said on Wednesday it was unlikely Israeli had directly struck the Hezbollah officials.

Speaking on Israeli army radio, Yadlin said: "The probability [of the report] is very low," adding that "we're trying to piece the picture together, with the official Israel remaining silent.

"We're trying to understand what's been attacked and what were the results of the attack. We're relying on statements from the Syrians and leaks for the Department of Defence."

'Hostile targets'

During the more than seven-year conflict in neighbouring Syria, Israel has grown increasingly alarmed by the expanding clout of Iran - a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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Israel has carried out dozens of air strikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in the war, but it rarely confirms or comments on such attack.

On 17 September, a Russian military plane was brought down by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile off the coast of the Latakia governorate in response to an Israeli raid on Syrian targets.

Israel effectively used the plane as a cover during the attack, according to Moscow.

The downing of the Russian plane pushed Moscow to activate a long-postponed delivery of its S-300 air defence missile system to Syria.

At the end of last month, Syria said its air defences had targeted and downed a number of "hostile targets" over the Kisweh area south of Damascus.

"We are standing steadfast on our red lines in Syria and everywhere else."