Israeli leader vows to keep weapons from Hezbollah

JERUSALEM: Israel’s prime minister insisted Sunday that he will not allow “dangerous weapons” to reach Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, following reports that Israel recently carried out an airstrike in northern Syria against a shipment of advanced missiles.

The airstrike in Latakia reportedly targeted Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles, one of the types of advanced weapons that Israeli officials have previously said they would not allow to reach Syria. It would be the fourth known airstrike against Syria this year.

Asked about the reports on the CBS-TV show “Face the Nation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to confirm or deny Israeli involvement in the latest airstrike.

“My policy is to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons to Hezbollah … in Lebanon and other terror groups as well. And we stand by that policy,” he said.

Israel has been carefully watching the Syrian conflict since it erupted in March 2011. While it has been careful not to take sides in the civil war, Israel has repeatedly said it would take action to prevent what it calls “game changing” weapons, including chemical weapons and advanced guided missiles, from reaching Hezbollah or other hostile militant groups. Syria’s President Bashar Assad is a key backer of Hezbollah.

In January, Israeli aircraft destroyed what was believed to be a shipment of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles in Syria that were bound for Lebanon. In May, a pair of Israeli airstrikes near Damascus targeted advanced Iranian ground-to-ground missiles also thought to be headed for Hezbollah. Israel has never confirmed involvement in any of the airstrikes.

Following the May attack, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to retaliate if Israel struck his territory again. Assad has not commented on the latest alleged airstrike.

Hezbollah has also been quiet. The group’s Al-Manar TV station reported on its website on the day of the July 5 explosions that blasts were heard in the area.

It said the blasts were most likely caused by shells from rebel-held areas that crashed into an army base. It quoted a “military expert” as denying reports that the attack originated from the air or sea or that any “enemy” aircrafts were involved.

Yakhont missiles are powerful anti-ship weapons launched from the shore that are difficult to defend against.

They travel at twice the speed of sound close to the surface of the water, making it hard for radar to detect them. Israel sees them as threatening its military and commercial installations along the coast, including its offshore natural gas reserves.

Hezbollah used a less-advanced Iranian surface-to-sea missile to hit an Israeli warship during a monthlong 2006 war. That attack killed four Israeli sailors.