updated 9/6/2007 10:19:59 PM ET 2007-09-07T02:19:59

The Syrian government charged Thursday 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 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 Israelis are 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 U.S.-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 lands.

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

No allegations of bombs
Syria did not claim the aircraft bombed its territory, however. Asked if Israel attacked Syria, Cabinet Minister Buthaina Shaaban said only that the aircraft violated Syrian air space.

“We are a sovereign country. They cannot do that,” Shaaban said on Al-Jazeera television’s English service.

Syrian officials did not specify the type or quantity of Israeli aircraft that purportedly crossed the border or describe the “munitions” dropped. Pilots sometimes jettison extra fuel tanks when warplanes come under fire to make the craft lighter and easier to maneuver.

Israel’s army spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying he could not discuss military operations.

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

“I’d leave it up to the parties to describe what happened. We’ll leave it to them to try and sort this out,” deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

Some officials suggested the Bush administration did not want to stoke tensions further by taking sides between Israel and Syria.

Syrian military and government officials condemned Israel.

“We warn the Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act, and retain the right to respond in an appropriate way,” the Syrian military said.

Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told Al-Jazeera that Syria’s government was considering how to respond, but refused to say whether it would opt for diplomatic or military means.

He said the incident showed “Israel in fact does not want peace” and charged that a recent increase in U.S. military aid was fueling aggression by the Jewish state.

The route reportedly flown by the Israeli planes, east from the Mediterranean deep into northern Syria, would have taken the craft to Syria’s closest point to Iran, separated only by Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Syrian-Iranian alliance a concern
Israel is concerned over the growing strength of the Syrian-allied Iran, whose leaders strongly oppose the Jewish state’s existence.

The U.S., Israel and other nations fear Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to produce atomic weapons. Iran denies that, saying the program is solely geared toward generating electricity.

Both Israel and the U.S. have refused to rule out airstrikes on Iran should diplomatic efforts fail to get Tehran to curb its atomic program.

Israeli aircraft fly over Lebanon routinely to monitor Hezbollah guerrillas, but it is unclear how often its planes fly over Syria.

Before and during last summer’s war with Hezbollah, Israeli warplanes twice buzzed the residence of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Analysts called the flights a warning to Syria to keep out of the fight next door.

In October 2003, Israeli warplanes bombed a Palestinian guerrilla base near Damascus, the first airstrike inside Syria since the 1973 Mideast war. During Syria’s three-decade occupation in Lebanon, which ended in 2005, Israeli planes occasionally attacked Syrian military units in that country.

But the last major confrontation took place during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when Israel’s air force shot down dozens of Syrian warplanes and ground troops destroyed Syrian armor in central and eastern Lebanon.

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