Israel raid on Syria triggered by arms fears-US sources

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LONDON, SeP 12 (Reuters) A mysterious Israeli air raid in Syria may have been triggered by suspicions Damascus is building nuclear arms, to test new Syrian air defences or to stop Iranian weapons reaching Hezbollah, US and Western officials say.

Amid widespread media speculation and a blanket silence from the Israeli and US government, nothing is certain.

One political source in the region told Reuters he believed that Israel dropped bombs in an empty area in the Syrian desert as a diversion during a clandestine ground operation by commandos.

Recalling the failure of US forces to find much evidence of Iraqi secret weapons whose alleged development was part of the justification for the 2003 invasion, some analysts say there seems little evidence for suspicions against Syria.

An Israeli government spokesman again declined all comment today. Washington, for which Syria forms part of a hostile alliance with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, has also kept silent.

US officials confirmed Israel launched air strikes against Syria last week but would not discuss targets. Syria has complained to the United Nations that Israeli aircraft ''dropped munitions''. The munitions did no damage.

Its UN ambassador said Israel wanted to torpedo efforts for peace in the Middle East.

Israeli President Shimon Peres called the episode ''spilt milk'' but gave no details of what actually happened and said Israel still wanted peace with Syria.

Israeli public radio stations, which like all media in the country are under military censorship, led morning bulletins with a New York Times report that US officials had said Israel did carry out an air strike on September 6 - and that US officials believed Syria may have obtained nuclear material.

Israeli newspapers gave prominent coverage to a CNN report quoting US sources saying that Israeli aircraft and possibly ground troops struck Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah, with which Israel fought a month-long war last year.

One Israeli newspaper Web site referred to an Arab Israeli newspaper report which quoted Israeli sources as saying Israeli planes bombed and destroyed a northern Syrian missile base that was financed by Iran.

One US diplomatic source told Reuters that Deir az-Zor, the northeastern area where Syria said the Israeli bombs caused no damage, was suspected by US officials of being the focus of some form of cooperation on nuclear weapons with North Korea.

''The suspicion is that North Korea is outsourcing uranium enrichment to Damascus,'' the diplomatic source said.

However, another US official and former US intelligence officials said this seemed unlikely and technically difficult.

''TARGET'' In Vienna, two senior diplomats familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency said they knew of no serious suspicions of nuclear links between Syria and North Korea.

The New York Times quoted an unnamed Pentagon official saying Israeli jets struck at least one target in northeastern Syria but adding that it was not clear what was hit.

Another US official source told Reuters there was concern in Washington that North Korea may have hidden a uranium enrichment plant abroad. But that source said it seemed unlikely Pyongyang would risk derailing a deal with the United States to end its nuclear arms programme by sending material to Syria.

The New York Times quoted US officials saying Israel's most likely targets in Syria were Iranian arms for Hezbollah, against whom Israel fought a month-long war last year.

The paper also quoted one US official saying Israel believed that North Korea was selling Syria nuclear material.

One former US intelligence official who still follows the Middle East closely said he believed previous comments from Western diplomats in Damascus that last week's incident centred on an attempt by Israel to test whether Syria's air defences had been improved since purchases of new equipment from Russia.

Reuters SZ VP0250

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