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Netanyahu takes aim at weapons leakage in Syria

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem May 19, 2013. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem May 19, 2013. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held out the prospect on Sunday of further Israeli strikes inside Syria, pledging to act to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah and other militant groups.

Although Israel has not publicly taken sides in the civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebels trying to topple him, Western and Israeli sources say it has launched air strikes in Syria to destroy weapons it believed were destined for Lebanon's Hezbollah.

In public remarks at the weekly meeting of his cabinet, Netanyahu made no direct mention of those attacks, but said Israel was prepared to take action in the future and was "preparing for every scenario" in the Syrian conflict.

Israel had a policy "to prevent, as much as possible, the leakage of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and terror elements", he said.

"We will act to ensure the security interest of Israel's citizens in the future as well."

Tzipi Livni, a member of Netanyahu's security cabinet and a former foreign minister, said: "I don't think there is anyone in Israel eager to take action" in Syria, hinting at concerns that any strike could provoke a wider conflict.

In an interview with Israel's Army Radio, Livni also said Israeli politicians ought to avoid taking sides.

"Israel isn't popular in Syria. Therefore any such statement could only be used as ammunition by one of the sides to try and divert the debate or the violence toward Israel and that's the last thing we need," Livni said.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied reports that it attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near Damascus this month that it believed were awaiting delivery to Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006 and is allied with Assad.

SUPERSONIC MISSILE

A Russian shipment of Yakhont anti-ship missiles to Syria was condemned by the United States on Friday, and Israel is also alarmed by the prospect of Moscow supplying S-300 advanced air defense missile systems to Damascus.

Netanyahu held talks in Russia on Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin on the Syrian crisis but gave no public indication whether Israel's concerns over the Russian weaponry had been eased.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defence Ministry official, said on Saturday the S-300 and the Yakhont, weapons that could complicate any plans for foreign military intervention in Syria, would likely end up with Hezbollah and threaten both Israel and U.S. forces in the Gulf.

"Yakhont is a cruise missile that can hit targets at sea and strategic targets. (It is) a supersonic missile, (with) a range of 300 km, very sophisticated," Gilad said on Israel's Channel Two television on Saturday.

"The Russians sent it to Syria, beside the strategic defense system called the S-300. There are a number of versions, and they are sending them one of the good versions," he said.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Friday Russia's delivery of anti-ship missiles to Assad was "ill-timed and very unfortunate" and risked prolonging a war that has already killed more than 80,000 Syrians.

A spokesman for Putin, while not responding directly to assertions Russia had sent the anti-ship missiles, said Moscow would honor contracts to supply Syria, a long-time weapons customer.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Robin Pomeroy)

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