'42 soldiers' killed in Damascus attack




Israel’s weekend airstrike on a sprawling military complex near the Syrian capital killed at least 42 Syrian soldiers, an activist group has said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the toll is based on information from sources in Syrian military hospitals.

The Syrian government has not released a death toll. Immediately after Sunday’s pre-dawn strike,

Syrian state media said the attack near Damascus caused casualties, but did not elaborate.

So far, Israel has carried out three airstrikes in Syria this year, according to Israeli and US officials, though Israel’s government has not formally confirmed involvement.

The officials say the attacks were meant to prevent advanced Iranian weapons from reaching Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, a Syria ally and Israel foe.

Israel earlier signalled a return to “business as usual,” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arriving in China for a scheduled visit,

Syria and its patron Iran have hinted at possible retribution over the strikes, though the rhetoric in official statements has been relatively muted.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned that Israel was “playing with fire,” but gave no other suggestions of possible consequences, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Syria’s government called the attacks a “flagrant violation of international law” that has made the Middle East “more dangerous”. It also claimed the Israeli strikes proved Israel’s links to rebel groups trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime..

Israeli officials have indicated they will keep trying to block what they see as an effort by Iran to send sophisticated weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia ahead of a possible collapse of Assad’s regime.

Israel has repeatedly threatened to intervene in the Syrian civil war to stop the transfer of what it calls “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah, a Syrian-backed group that battled Israel to a stalemate during a month-long war in 2006.

Since carrying out a lone airstrike in January that reportedly destroyed a shipment of anti-aircraft missiles headed to Hezbollah, Israel had largely stayed on the sidelines. That changed this weekend with the pair of airstrikes, including an attack near a sprawling military complex close to Damascus early on Sunday that set off a series of powerful explosions.

A senior Israeli official said both airstrikes targeted shipments of Fateh-110 missiles bound for Hezbollah. The Iranian-made guided missiles can fly deep into Israel and deliver powerful half-ton bombs with pinpoint accuracy.

Meanwhile, a UN panel looking into war crimes in Syria said it has not found conclusive evidence of chemical weapons use, backing away from a member’s claims that there are indications rebel forces used the nerve agent sarin.

The commission “wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict,” the panel said.

The statement comes after panel member and former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told Swiss TV that the commission has indications that Syrian rebel forces used nerve agent sarin as a weapon.

In the interview broadcast on Sunday night, Del Ponte said the the panel’s investigators have “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas from the way the victims were treated” – but no evidence government forces also used sarin as a chemical weapon.

She said the indications are based on interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals in neighbouring countries, though doubts were raised about her contention because the panel has mostly been interviewing refugees who oppose President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The chairman, Brazilian diplomat and scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said the panel “reminds all parties to the conflict that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law”.

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