Israel launches U.S.-backed missile shield on Syria frontier, Russia sends envoys

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel launched its newest air defense system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus's Russian-backed forces have been routing rebels, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called "urgent" talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu planned to meet Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and its armed forces chief, General Valery Gerasimov, later in the day, a visit the Israeli leader said was arranged last week at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Israel is on high alert as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regains ground from rebels in the southwest of the country, bringing his forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In a sign of high tensions, Israel launched two David's Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which it said fell inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.

It was Israel's first operational use of the mid-range David's Sling, which is jointly manufactured by U.S. firm Raytheon Co <RTN.N>. The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan, sending many residents to shelters.

An Israeli source briefed on the David's Sling activation said the interceptor missiles were launched following an initial assessment that the two incoming Syrian SS-21 rockets would hit the Israeli side of the Golan. When Israeli sensors realized they would land on the Syrian side, David's Sling was given an abort order for the interceptors to self-destruct in mid-air.

The source requested anonymity as the Israeli military had yet to carry out a formal investigation. Asked if the United States were apprised of the incident, the source said: "I'm sure that will happen in the future, as there are joint interests."

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem referred inquiries to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond.

Netanyahu held talks with Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old foe, may defy a 1974 demilitarization deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.

Russia has said it wants to see the separation of forces on the frontier preserved. Lavrov's deputy, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media the foreign minister's trip was "urgent and important".

Netanyahu, in broadcast remarks, said he would tell the envoys that "Israel insists on the separation of forces agreement between us and Syria being honored, as they were honored for decades until the civil war in Syria broke out".

He also reaffirmed "Israel will continue to act against any attempt by Iran and its proxies to entrench militarily in Syria".

Syrian state television said on Sunday an Israeli air strike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria's Hama province but caused only material damage. The Israeli military declined comment.

Also on Sunday, hundreds of Syrian "White Helmet" rescue workers and their families fled advancing government forces and slipped over the border into Jordan with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Damascus on Monday condemned the evacuation as a "criminal operation" undertaken by "Israel and its tools".[L5N1UJ2FC] The Russian embassy in Israel tweeted that the White Helmets were "militants", linking them with Syria's Islamist-led insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

07/23/2018 8:56

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