BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian President Bashar Assad told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Monday that Israeli warplanes attacked an "unused military building" in his country last month and said Damascus reserves the right to retaliate.
But Assad said his country was not about to attack Israel in response, suggesting he did not want to hurt chances at peace talks with the Jewish state.
Assad also made it clear that Syria would not attend a U.S.-sponsored international peace conference on the Middle East if it did not address Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
Assad said Israel's air raid on northern Syria last month showed Israel's "visceral antipathy towards peace," according to excerpts posted on the BBC's Web site.
The comments were the first by the Syrian leader about a mysterious Sept. 6 Israeli air incursion over Syria that raised speculation that warplanes had hit weapons headed for Hezbollah or even a nascent nuclear installation, reports Damascus has repeatedly denied. Assad's comments were the first Syrian acknowledgement that an air raid took place and not just an aerial incursion.
"Retaliate doesn't mean missile for missile and bomb for bomb," Assad told the BBC in an interview in Damascus. "We have our means to retaliate, maybe politically, maybe in other ways. But we have the right to retaliate in different means."
"But if we wanted to retaliate militarily, this means we're going to work according to the Israeli agenda, something we don't look for. That doesn't mean we squander any opportunity for peace in the near future," he added in the interview, which was monitored in neighboring Lebanon.
Change in tone
But Assad said Syria was not about to attack Israel. "It's possible, but we don't say this is the option that we're going to adopt now. We say that we have many different means," he said.
Previously, Syrian officials had said only that the Israeli warplanes entered the country's airspace, came under fire from anti-aircraft defenses, and dropped munitions and fuel tanks over northeastern Syria to lighten their loads while they fled.
The BBC quoted Assad in the interview as saying the attack was on an "unused military building." The BBC did not air that part of the interview.
Israel has clamped a news blackout on the incident. U.S. officials have said Israeli warplanes struck a target, with some saying it was a cache of missiles headed for Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas allied to Syria and Iran.
But at the same time, a senior American nonproliferation official said that North Korean personnel were in Syria helping its nuclear program, resulting in speculation nuclear installations had been targeted.
Syria and North Korea both denied the reports and accused U.S. officials of spreading the allegations for political reasons.
Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly's ministerial meeting on Monday, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused "sources in the United States" of fabricating news about the target of a mysterious Israeli attack last month.
Al-Moallem warned that the failure of the U.N. Security Council and the international community to condemn "this act of aggression would encourage Israel to persist in this hostile pursuit, and lead to an exacerbation of tensions in the region."
Asked in the BBC interview whether Syria was rearming and strengthening its missile capabilities, Assad said: "This is very normal and self-evident that we're going to prepare ourselves for that."
Waiting to decide on peace conference
Assad also said Syria needs to know details of an international peace conference on the Middle East planned in the United States later this year before it decides whether to participate.
"This conference or any conference is going to be an opportunity but it should be purposeful. It should be substantive," he said. "I don't see where is the purpose and what is the substance of this conference. What are they going to talk about?"
"It needs more clarifications for Syria to take a decision," he said.
But he made it clear Syria's concerns need to be addressed — primarily the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
"So far we didn't have the invitation and we didn't have any clarification about anything," he said in comments carried on the BBC Web site.
"If they don't talk about the Syrian occupied territory, no, there's no way for Syria to go there. It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace. Without that, we shouldn't go, we wouldn't go."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that key Arab nations, including Syria, would be invited to a peace conference expected to be held in the United States in November to provide the foundation for peace talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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