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Middle East: Syria Calls Israeli Air Strikes 'Grave Escalation'

Prague, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Syria yesterday said that Israeli air strikes launched on its territory overnight represent a "grave escalation" and a "flagrant violation by Israel of international laws."

The government in Damascus also demanded an immediate meeting of the United Nations Security Council in order to address the issue.

Israeli says it targeted the Ein Sahev camp about 15 kilometers northwest of Damascus. Israeli officials allege that the camp has been used as a training base for members of the Islamic Jihad militant group.

But Syria says the Israeli attack caused damage in a civilian area at the village of Ain al-Saheb.

Israel says its attack was in retaliation for yesterday's suicide bombing at a restaurant in Haifa in northern Israel which killed at least 19 people and injured some 50 others.

The Israeli air strikes come at the start of the Jewish festival Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, and exactly 30 years after Egypt and Syria launched an attack against Israel that started the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Mideast observers say the air strike represents one of the most serious military confrontations between Syria and Israel since the end of the Yom Kippur War.

Abu Emad el-Refaei, a spokesman in Beirut for the Islamic Jihad movement, denied that his group had any training camps or bases in Syria.

Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the attack was the result of a decision made during an emergency session of the Israeli government. He said the decision signals the start of expanded military operations.

"Last night, after the [emergency cabinet] consultation we conducted, we have decided -- the Defense Ministry and of course the government of Israel -- to enlarge the scope of our operation against Islamic Jihad and Hamas," he said.

Gissin said the Israeli government has decided that it will not offer immunity or allow any sanctuary for militants from Hamas or the Islamic Jihad movement. Significantly, Gissin said that Israel is now prepared to launch attacks into the territory of both Syria and Iran -- if deemed necessary -- in order to destroy what he called an infrastructure of terrorism.

"The attack that took place in Syria -- deep, I would say, deep in Syrian territory -- was in a base called Ein Sahev and this base serves to train all the terrorist organizations which are still operating in Syria."

Gissin also described both Iran and Syria as part of "an axis of terror" that he says is directly involved in attacks against Israeli civilians.

"We will not tolerate the continuation of this axis of terror between Tehran, Damascus, and Gaza -- to continue to operate and kill innocent men, women, and children. And therefore, the operation that took place in the early morning today was intended to send that message both to Syria as well as the leaders of Islamic Jihad and Hamas," Gissin said.

The Israeli army also issued a statement today accusing Iran and Syria of funding and directing terrorist attacks against Israelis by the Islamic Jihad group. Gissin said Israel is increasingly concerned about what he said is Iranian support for Islamic militants.

"More and more indications are that Tehran is moving not only to support terrorists in Gaza and Ramallah and establish and bolster their ties with [Palestinian Authority] Chairman [Yasser] Arafat, but definitely also against Israel within the Arab community within Israel. We will take whatever measure is necessary to defend our citizens regardless of the geographic location of these training camps," he said.

Meanwhile, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has denied any link between yesterday's suicide bomb in Haifa and the Palestinian Authority. "We utterly reject the Israeli government's accusation that the Palestinian Authority is responsible," he said. "This attack is against the interests of the Palestinian people and the policies of the Palestinian authority and the government to be formed."

Erekat called upon the so-called Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations to begin a process of de-escalation in order to keep alive the "road map" for a Mideast Peace.

"We urge the Americans and the Quartet to begin this process of de-escalation in order to ensure that Israel will not use this attack in order to carry out further attacks, because we want to end this cycle of violence and ending this cycle of violence is [possible] through one way. This way is [by] resuming a meaningful peace process that will lead to ending the Israeli occupation," Erekat said.