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Israel acknowledges airstrike on Syria

Operation's details still undisclosed

JERUSALEM - Easing a news blackout, Israel acknowledged yesterday that its air force had struck an unspecified military target deep inside Syria in September.

But the military censor's office continued to bar Israeli media from disclosing other information about the Sept. 6 raid, including the target, the forces that took part, and the degree of the mission's success.

Everything about the operation, sketchily reported by the Syrian News Agency hours after it happened but then denied by Syrian officials, has been a tightly held secret in Israel.

Reports in foreign media quoting unidentified US officials have speculated that Israel attacked a weapons shipment destined for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon or a nuclear facility built with North Korean technology.

Israeli media were permitted to cite foreign reports about the airstrike, but a special directive prohibited them from disclosing anything they learned on their own. The policy's aim was to allow Syrian leaders and their allies to pretend that nothing had happened and avoid pressure to retaliate.

Yesterday's clearance to report officially that the raid had taken place came from the Israeli censor's office a day after Syrian President Bashar Assad gave his government's first official acknowledgment of the airstrike in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

Assad said Israeli warplanes attacked "an unused military building." That contradicted accounts by Syrian officials that Israeli planes merely had intruded into Syrian airspace, met anti-aircraft fire, and dumped fuel tanks while scrambling back to Israel.

Speaking English and appearing relaxed as he sat with the BBC interviewer in Damascus, Assad said the airstrike demonstrated Israel's "visceral antipathy toward peace" and vowed that Syria would make the Jewish state pay.

"Retaliate doesn't mean missile for missile and bomb for bomb," he said. "We have our means to retaliate, maybe politically, maybe in other ways. But we have the right to retaliate in different means."

Clearly the incident gave Syrians a jolt.

"It's purely aggressive and very dangerous," said Munir Ali, a spokesman for Syria's Ministry of Information.

While keeping details of the raid secret, Israeli officials have hinted at motives. Gideon Frank, deputy chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, warned delegates at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna last month that Israel could not ignore the efforts of Middle Eastern countries to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. Syria has denied receiving North Korean nuclear help and shipping weapons to Hezbollah. North Korea, which provides missile technology to Syria, has denied giving any nuclear assistance.

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