WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials on Wednesday confirmed Israel launched air strikes against Syria last week and said they were to target weapons Israel believes were headed for the militant group Hezbollah.
One defense official dismissed speculation Israel had aimed for any nuclear-related target. Two others said the target included weapons Israeli and U.S. officials have said Iran provides to Hezbollah through Syria.
“They saw a weapons flow,” one official said, referring to weapons caches intended for Hezbollah, which fired thousands of rockets into Israel during a 36-day conflict last year.
It was still unclear whether Israel hit its targets in the September 6 air strikes.
Israel has declined comment on the strikes. Syria says the munitions dropped by Israel did no damage.
One U.S. defense official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said the significance of the strikes was not whether Israel hit its targets, but rather that it displayed a willingness to take military action.
Syria has protested to the United Nations about the air strikes. On Wednesday, Syria’s U.N. ambassador said Israel’s motive was to torpedo peace moves.
“We think the Israeli purpose behind such an aggressive act is to torpedo the peace process, to torpedo the idea of holding an international conference,” Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja‘afari told reporters.
Asked about Hezbollah’s weapons, Ja‘afari said, “This is blah, blah. This is nonsense, this is an unfounded statement. It is not up to the Israelis or anyone else to assess what we have in Syria.”
“There was no target,” he added. “They dropped their munitions. They were running away after they were confronted by our air defense.”
Israeli public radio stations, which like all media in the country are under military censorship, led morning news bulletins with a New York Times report that U.S. officials had said Israel carried out the strikes -- and that U.S. officials believed Syria may have obtained nuclear material.
While some officials speculated that Syria and North Korea had opened some form of cooperation on nuclear weapons, other U.S. officials and former intelligence officials told Reuters that seemed unlikely and technically difficult.
A European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters satellite surveillance of an alleged nuclear site in Syria had been inconclusive due to poor weather. However, he said monitoring of this site would continue.
Israeli jets last struck in 2003 across a border that remains tense but quiet 34 years after the last war between the two neighbors ended in an edgy ceasefire. In June last year Syrian guns opened fire on Israeli aircraft over Syria.
Israel has urged Syria to stop supporting militant Palestinian groups and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.
Some Israeli intelligence officials also have suggested Syria’s government might be ready to try to take by force parts of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the war of 1967.
Syrian officials have said Syria was seeking peaceful means to recover the Golan, although some also have suggested force remained an option if diplomacy failed. Israeli-Syrian peace efforts have been stalled for seven years.
Additional reporting by Evelyn Leopold in New York and Louis Charbonneau in Berlin