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Syria accuses Israel of violating its air space, dropping 'munitions'

Details regarding encounter unclear

DAMASCUS - The Syrian government charged yesterday that Israeli aircraft dropped "munitions" inside Syria overnight and said its air defenses opened fire in a new escalation of tensions between the decades-old foes.

It was unclear what happened. Syria stopped short of accusing Israel of purposely bombing its territory, and an Israeli spokesman said he could not comment on military operations.

Analysts speculated that such a foray could have been probing Syria's defenses or monitoring long-range missile bases. The reported path also would have taken the jets near Iran, whose growing power and anti-Israel government worries leaders of the Jewish state.

The incident came after a summer of building tensions that have fed worries of a military conflict erupting between Syria and Israel. Syria accused Israel last month of seeking a pretext for war, and the Israeli government is keeping a close watch on Syrian troop movements.

Both sides have insisted they want no conflict along the disputed frontier. But Syria fears it is being squeezed out of a US-brokered Mideast peace conference planned for November and will be left at a disadvantage in the standoff with Israel.

Syria has grown more vocal in pressing its demand that Israel give back the Golan Heights. Israel, in turn, seeks the return of three Israeli soldiers held for more than a year by two Syrian-allied militant groups, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territory.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted a military official as saying Israeli jets broke the sound barrier flying over northern Syria before dawn yesterday, then "dropped munitions" onto deserted areas after being shot at by Syria's air defenses.

Syria did not say the aircraft bombed its territory, however. Asked whether Israel attacked Syria, Buthaina Shaaban, a Cabinet minister, said only that the aircraft violated Syrian air space.

Syrian officials did not describe the "munitions" dropped. Pilots sometimes jettison extra fuel tanks when warplanes come under fire to make the craft lighter and easier to maneuver.

In Washington, the State Department had no specific comment on the incident, citing the lack of details about what happened.

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