Israeli strikes hit a military target outside Damascus on Sunday, the Jewish state’s second reported raid on Syria in three days, with residents saying the attack felt like an earthquake and turned the sky red.
A senior Israeli source said the aerial assault took out Iranian weapons destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is allied to the Syrian regime.
And a diplomatic source in Beirut told AFP three sites were targeted, including a military facility, a nearby weapons depot and an anti-aircraft unit in Sabura, west of Syria’s capital.
The official SANA news agency said Israel had targeted the military research centre at Jamraya in the Eastern Ghouta region, without giving details on casualties or damage.
“This new Israeli aggression is a clear attempt to alleviate the pressure on the armed terrorist groups after our army beat them back in several regions and after the army’s victories on the road to recovering security and stability in Syria,” said SANA.
The Israeli source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the target of the attack “was Iranian missiles which were destined for Hezbollah”.
He also confirmed the Jewish state was behind an attack overnight Thursday, which sources told AFP targeted a weapons storage facility at Damascus airport.
On Sunday morning, an Israeli army spokeswoman said two batteries of the Iron Dome missile defence system had been moved to the north of the country.
“This attack proves the direct involvement of the Israeli occupation in the conspiracy against Syria and its links with terrorist groups in the aggression supported by Western countries and some Gulf countries,” SANA said of Sunday’s pre-dawn strike.
Residents of the upscale Damascus neighbourhood of Dumar, six kilometres (four miles) away, said the raids caused the ground to shudder and turned the black night sky red.
“It was like an earthquake, the sky was yellow and red,” said 72-year-old Najwa.
Video footage of the strikes uploaded to YouTube showed a series of missiles lighting up clouds.
A fire caused by the raids could be seen burning and then an enormous explosion erupts, producing an orange fireball that momentarily fills the entire screen.
The powerful explosion sent up towering clouds of smoke illuminated by embers of debris.
If confirmed, the attack would be Israel’s second this week against targets inside Syria and the second time it has targeted the Jamraya facility, after a January 30 raid that Israeli officials implicitly acknowledged.
Israel has frequently warned that it would act to stop the transfer of advanced weapons systems or chemical weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah with which it fought a devastating war in 2006.
Hezbollah and Iran, the regional arch-foes of Israel, have steadfastly backed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising against it erupted in March 2011.
The raid in January targeted surface-to-air missiles and an adjacent military complex believed to house chemical agents, a US official said at the time.
The attacks highlight the potential for the Syrian conflict, now in its third year, to spill over into the rest of the region.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in violence since the beginning of the uprising.
US President Barack Obama, speaking after the first reported attack this week, said Israel was justified in protecting itself.
“The Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organisations like Hezbollah,” he said, without commenting directly on the strike.
“We coordinate closely with the Israelis, recognising that they are very close to Syria, they are very close to Lebanon.”
The rebel Free Syrian Army reacted cautiously to news of the latest strike, saying their country was already under daily attack by regime aircraft.
“Of course the Free Syrian Army and any Syrian is bothered that their country is being bombed, but Syria is being bombed every day by Bashar al-Assad, and by Israel,” the FSA’s Louay Muqdad told AFP.
Iran lashed out at Israel.
“The assault, which was carried out with the US green light, unveils the links between the terrorist mercenaries and their masters of the Zionist regime (Israel),” said Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi.
The strikes came shortly after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the bodies of at least 62 people had been found in a Sunni district of the port town of Banias, a day after a regime assault.
The opposition National Coalition condemned “a proliferation of massacres that is transforming into an ethnic cleansing operation like that carried out by Serbian forces in Bosnia 20 years ago”.
The bodies were found after the Observatory said at least 50 people had been killed Thursday in the Sunni village of Bayda, just south of Banias.