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U.S., Israel say Syria arming Hezbollah with missiles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Israeli defense ministers accused Syria on Tuesday of arming Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas with increasingly powerful missiles, but Israel said it did not intend to provoke a conflict over the buildup.

Smoke tracks rise over a mountain road in Maarake, north of the southern Lebanon town of Tyre (Soure), after Hezbollah launch rockets into Israel territory, July 23, 2006. REUTERS/Nikola Solic

The comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Israel’s Ehud Barak stopped short of identifying what type of missiles were being supplied to Hezbollah, after reports that the group had obtained long-range Scud missiles capable of hitting targets across the Jewish state.

U.S. intelligence and defense officials have cast doubt on Israeli allegations that Scuds have reached Lebanon.

Gates, who spoke alongside Barak after a meeting at the Pentagon, said Syria as well as Iran were providing Hezbollah with weapons of “ever increasing capability.”

“We are at a point now where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world,” Gates said, noting that Washington was following the matter closely.

Barak said the missiles could “disrupt the very delicate balance in Lebanon.”

But he played down the chances of a conflict over the transfers, which have grabbed headlines since the Scud allegations surfaced in a Kuwaiti media report on April 10 and were endorsed by Israel’s head of state, Shimon Peres.

“We do not intend to provoke any kind of major collision in Lebanon, or vis-a-vis Syria ... but we are watching closely these developments and think that they do not contribute to stability in the region,” Barak said.

Hezbollah fired thousands of the mostly short-range Katyusha rockets into Israel in 2006 and the Jewish state is worried the guerrillas have replenished their arsenal to strike on Iran’s behalf if its nuclear sites come under attack.

A Pentagon report on Iran released last week said that Hezbollah had rearmed itself to beyond the levels seen before the 2006 war, despite U.N.-backed efforts to curb weapon shipments to the group.

In addition to arms, Iran provides about $100 million to $200 million per year to support Hezbollah, it said.

The missile allegations involving Syria have complicated President Barack Obama’s efforts to forge a rapprochement with Damascus, which his administration sees as crucial to Middle East peace efforts and to stabilize the nascent democracy in neighboring Iraq.

Obama aims to return an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year absence. But the designated envoy, Robert Ford, is still awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.

Reporting by Phil Stewart, Adam Entous and Deborah Charles, editing by Chris Wilson