Israel destroys Syrian armoured vehicle

Israeli tanks on the Golan Heights

Israel has destroyed a Syrian armoured vehicle in retaliation after a mortar shell landed on its territory in the first direct confrontation between the countries since the Syrian uprising broke out.

The response by Israel, the second in two days, increased fears that it could be drawn into the civil war on its border.

Israel has grown increasingly worried after a series of stray mortar shells have struck territory in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Israeli military believe the mortar fire is spilling over from intense fighting near the frontier between Syrian president Bashar Assad's army and rebel forces trying to oust him, and not an overt attempt to hit the Jewish state.

But Israel is starting to question that assessment.

"We thought it was spillover, but today we're not sure," said one senior military official.

Syria's civil war also shook the country's northern neighbour, Turkey, after a Syrian jet bombed a rebel-held area near the frontier, killing at least six people.

Israeli officials have long feared that the embattled Assad might try to draw Israel into the fighting in an act of desperation.

In a statement, the military said Israeli tanks targeted the "source of fire" in Syria after the mortar shell landed in an open area of the Golan Heights. It confirmed "direct hits" on the targets.

Israeli military officials said an armoured vehicle carrying "Syrian mobile artillery" was hit.

Mortar shells have landed in the Golan over the past week, and early this month Syrian tanks accidentally crossed into a buffer zone along the frontier of the Golan for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed it.

After weeks of standing still, Israel responded for the first time on Sunday, firing what it called a "warning shot" into Syria after another mortar shell strayed across the frontier and landed near an Israeli military post. Israel also warned of a tougher response if the attacks persisted.

While Israel appeared eager to calm the situation, its response was a potent reminder of how easily the Syrian civil war - already spilling across borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan - could explode into a wider regional conflagration.

Israel has little love for Assad, who has provided refuge and support to its bitterest enemies through the years. But the Syrian leader - and his father before him - have kept the frontier quiet for nearly four decades, providing a rare source of stability in the volatile region.

Open hostilities between Israel and Syria could have wide-ranging consequences, dragging in Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group and perhaps Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Israel's southern flank.

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