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Israel drawn into fighting in Syria

JERUSALEM -- Israel was drawn into the fighting in neighboring Syria for the first time yesterday, firing warning shots across the border after an errant mortar shell landed near an Israeli military installation in the Golan Heights.

While Israel appeared eager to calm the situation, its response was a potent reminder of how easily the Syrian civil war, already spilling across borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, could explode into a wider regional conflagration.

Israeli officials have feared that the instability in Syria over the past 19 months could spill across the border into Israel, particularly as President Bashar Assad's grip on power grows increasingly precarious.

Israel has little love for Assad, who has provided refuge and support to Israel's bitterest enemies through the years. But the Syrian leader -- and his father before him -- have kept the frontier quiet for nearly four decades, providing a rare source of stability in the volatile region.

The Israeli military said the mortar fire caused no injuries or damage at the post in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed.

After responding to the mortar strike, the Israeli military moved quickly to defuse tensions. "We understand this was a mistake and was not meant to target Israel, and then that is why we fired a warning shot in retaliation," said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman. Defense officials said an anti-tank missile was fired, and there were no reports of casualties in Syria.

The Israeli military also said it filed a complaint through United Nations forces operating in the area, stating that "fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity."

Israeli defense officials said the incident was not considered a serious military threat, but Israel felt the need to respond in order to set clear limits for the Syrians.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israeli defense forces have been instructed "to prevent the battles from spilling over into our territory." "Additional shelling into Israel from Syria will elicit a tougher response; exacting a higher price from Syria," Barak said.

The violence in Syria has killed more than 36,000 people in the uprising that began in March 2011. Hundreds of thousands have fled the fighting into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Another 11,000 escaped Friday into Turkey.

But Turkish soldiers at the border turned back some of the refugees who had arrived late last week and wanted to return to Ras al-Ayn, saying the area was not secure.

Activists reported clashes and shelling in different parts of Syria, killing almost 60 people, nearly two-thirds of them civilians.

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