AMMAN (Reuters) - The force of the dawn attack on a Syrian military site outside Damascus on Wednesday shook the ground, waking nearby residents from their slumber with up to a dozen blasts, two sources in the area said.
“We were sleeping. Then we started hearing rockets hitting the complex and the ground started shaking and we ran into the basement,” said a woman who lives adjacent to the sprawling Jamraya site north-west of the Syrian capital.
The resident, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity over a reported strike in the area by Israel on Wednesday morning, said she could not tell whether the explosions which woke her were the result of an aerial attack.
Details of the strike remain sketchy and, in parts, contradictory. Syria said Israeli warplanes, flying low to avoid detection by radar, crossed into its airspace from Lebanon and struck the Jamraya military research center.
But diplomats, Syrian rebels and regional security sources said the planes hit a weapons convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon, apparently destined for President Bashar al-Assad’s ally Hezbollah, and the rebels said they - not Israel - hit Jamraya with mortars.
Another source who has a relative working inside Jamraya reported that a building inside the complex had been cordoned off on Wednesday employees believed it had been hit. Flames could be seen rising from the area after the attack, they said.
“It appears that there were about a dozen rockets that appeared to hit one building in the complex,” the source, who also asked not to be identified, told Reuters.
“The facility is closed today,” he added.
Israeli newspapers on Thursday quoted foreign media for reports on the strike. Journalists in Israel are required to submit articles on security and military issues to the censor, which has the power to block any publication of material it deems could compromise state security.
The Jamraya research center is in the town of Jamraya, 8 miles from the border with Lebanon, surrounded by heavily militarized areas including several army bases and artillery sites on the Qasioun mountain range, which overlooks Damascus proper 3 miles to the east.
Diplomats in the Middle East familiar with Jamraya described it as a crucial element of Syria’s missile program, and say it also has a chemical weapons facility. There have been no suggestions any chemical weapons were hit in Wednesday’s strike.
People who visited Jamraya recently say it is surrounded by walls 3 to 4 meters high and guarded by plain-clothed agents.
They say that recently shabbiha militia forces loyal to Assad deployed around it, and tanks moved into a residential housing section of the facility.
Asked about rebel attacks in the area, they said there had been some attempts to target the tanks with mortars but were not aware of any rebel activity in the last few days.
Three months ago rebels killed 21 elite Republican Guards in an ambush on an army minibus in the district of Qudsayya, just south of Jamraya, activists said.
A statement from the joint military council of the Free Syrian Army described Jamraya as “one of the biggest shabbiha strongholds”, where it said Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah members were helping develop chemical and other weapons including ‘barrel bombs’ used by Assad’s air force.
The rebels fired “six 120 millimeter mortars... a big part of (the complex) has been destroyed”, it said.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Philippa Fletcher