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Israeli forces retaliate for bombing

Warplanes strike Syrian positions in Golan Heights

– Israeli warplanes attacked Syrian military positions Wednesday in retaliation for a bombing the previous day, the most serious confrontation between the two foes since the Syrian conflict erupted three years ago.

Syria said one of its soldiers was killed and seven were injured when three army positions near the town of Quneitra were struck on the Syrian side of the cease-fire line between the two countries in the Golan Heights.

Israel said the targets were an army training center, a military headquarters and an artillery battery, and that the raids came in response to a bombing along the line Tuesday that injured four Israeli soldiers.

The attacks sent tensions soaring in the already-strained area, where Syrian troops and militia allies are battling rebels with a variety of allegiances who are intent on unseating Syrian President Bashar Assad. Stray shells have struck Israel on a number of occasions, and Israel has retaliated with artillery strikes to deter the fire; this was the first direct confrontation between the two militaries across the line.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said Israel did not know whether the Syrian army, its ally Hezbollah or the rebels they are fighting may have been responsible for planting the bomb. But Israel holds the Syrian army responsible, he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon went further, accusing Syria’s government of collaborating with what he called terrorists to plant the bomb and warning that the situation could escalate if there are more attacks.

“We hold the Assad regime responsible for what happens in its territory, and if it continues to collaborate with terrorists striving to hurt Israel, then we will keep on exacting a heavy price from it and make it regret its actions,” Yaalon said.

Addressing the Israeli Cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also directly blamed Syria. “Our policy is clear. We hurt those who hurt us,” he said. “Syrian elements not only allowed but also cooperated in the attacks on our forces.”

Syria’s military command issued a counterwarning, accusing Israel of seeking to escalate tensions to take attention from the Syrian government’s recent advances against rebel fighters. The strikes offered “a dose of moral support to the terrorist gangs tumbling under the Syrian Arab Army’s strikes,” the Syrian military command said in a statement carried by the official news agency SANA.

“Repeating these aggressive acts would jeopardize the region’s security and stability and make it vulnerable to all options,” it warned.

Although Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes against Syria over the past year, it is unusual for either party to acknowledge them, and the public statements seemed to underscore the seriousness of the latest confrontation. Previous Israeli attacks were aimed at preventing deliveries of sophisticated weapons from Syria to the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which Israel fought in a 2006 war, but Wednesday’s airstrikes raised tensions directly between Tel Aviv and Damascus in an area they last fought more than four decades ago.