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Syria affirms Israeli strike on military research unit

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BEIRUT — Israel conducted a rare airstrike on a military target inside Syria, foreign officials and Syrian state TV said Wednesday, amid fears that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is providing weapons to the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

A statement from the Syrian military read on state TV confirmed the strike, saying the jets bombed a military research center in the area of Jamraya, northwest of the capital, Damascus.

The statement said the center was responsible for "raising the level of resistance and self-defense" of Syria's military. It said the strike destroyed the center and a nearby building, killing two workers and wounding five others.

U.S. and regional security officials reported the strike earlier Wednesday, but did not say exactly where it took place.

Regional security officials said Israel had been planning the airstrike to hit a shipment of weapons bound for Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful military force.

Among Israeli officials' top fears is that Mr. Assad will pass chemical weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah — something that could change the balance of power in the region and greatly hinder Israel's ability to conduct air missions in Lebanon.

The regional officials said the shipment Israel was planning to strike included Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would be "game-changing" in the hands of Hezbollah, by enabling the group to carry out fiercer attacks on Israel and shoot down Israeli jets, helicopters and surveillance drones.

Hezbollah has committed to Israel's destruction and has gone to war against the Jewish state in the past.

A U.S. official confirmed the strike, saying it hit a convoy of trucks.

All officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the strike.

The Israeli military declined to comment.

Syria has long been among the militant group's most significant backers, and is suspected of supplying funding and arms, as well as a land corridor to Iran.

This strike, however, comes as Mr. Assad is enmeshed in a civil war with rebels trying to oust him. The rebels have seized a large swath of territory in the country's north and established footholds in a number of suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, though Mr. Assad's forces still control the city and much of the rest of the country.

While Mr. Assad's fall does not appear imminent, analysts worry he could grow desperate as his power wanes and seek to cause trouble elsewhere in the region through proxy groups, such as Hezbollah.

The Syrian army statement denied that the strike had targeted a convoy headed from Syria to Lebanon, instead portraying the strike as linked to the civil war pitting Mr. Assad's forces against rebels seeking to push him from power.

If confirmed, the airstrike would be the first inside Syria in more than five years. In September 2007, Israeli warplanes destroyed a site in Syria that the U.N. nuclear watchdog deemed likely to be a secretly built nuclear reactor. Syria has denied the claim, saying the building was a non-nuclear military site.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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