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Syria says Israel fires shells into its territory

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ALBERT AJI and TIA GOLDENBERG | March 5, 2014 07:02 AM EST | AP

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Israeli said its troops opened fire Wednesday on two suspected militants as they were trying to plant an explosive device on the Jewish state's frontier with Syria, but Syrian state media accused the Jewish state of targeting its forces.

The incident was the latest spillover of Syria's civil war into its neighbors. It came as Syrian warplanes carried out a series of airstrikes near a Lebanese border town, according to Lebanese officials.

Israel's military said that "hits were identified" in the shooting incident on the mountainous Golan Heights. The military claimed it was shooting at militants affiliated with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group, committed to Israel's destruction. However, it would not explain how it knew of the men's ties with the group.

Hezbollah officials were not immediately available for comment.

Syria's state news agency SANA, citing a military source, said that Israeli forces fired four tank shells toward the Golan village of al-Hamidiya, hitting a school and a mosque early Wednesday. It said Israeli forces also fired another four shells toward another area called al-Houriyah, and then opened fire a third time, again toward al-Hamidiya.

It said the attacks wounded seven members of the security forces and four civilians. It provided no further information.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that Israeli forces fired several tank shells and two missiles toward the Golan Heights. The group said one missile hit a school in the village of al-Hamidiyeh, where Syrian troops were concentrated. The Observatory obtains its news from a network of activists in Syria.

During Syria's civil war, mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and Israel has responded on several occasions. Israel captured the mountainous plateau of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967.

A U.N. peacekeeping force established in 1974 monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

In the course of the civil war, Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-occupied Golan, and Israel has responded on several occasions.

Citing the Syrian military source, SANA described the shooting incidents as "aggressive acts," and warned Israel of such "adventures and in testing our fighting capabilities."

Israel and Hezbollah battled to a stalemate during a monthlong war in the summer of 2006.

Tensions between the two foes spiked last week, when Israeli aircraft struck Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon. Hezbollah said it would retaliate but it was not clear if Wednesday's incident was related to that threat.

For the past year, Hezbollah has been embroiled in Syria's conflict, openly dispatching its fighters to battle alongside Assad-loyal forces.

Israel says Hezbollah has used the fighting in Syria as a cover to transfer weapons to Lebanon.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly vowed to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining sophisticated arms that could alter the current balance of power.

Israel has carried out a series of covert airstrikes in Syria over the past year that targeted shipments of weapons believed to be bound for Hezbollah.

Suggesting heightened tensions, Lebanon's state-run news agency reported that Israeli warplanes flying at low altitude carried out mock raids over the southern towns of Nabatiyeh and Iqlim al-Tuffah.

It says the warplanes were accompanied by an unmanned Israeli reconnaissance aircraft. The agency also reported that Israeli military helicopters were flying over the town of Shebaa that lies close to the Golan Heights.

On Lebanon's border with Syria, meanwhile, state media and officials said at least three strikes hit near the town of Arsal in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley, 12 kilometers (seven miles) from the Syrian border. One blast wounded a Syrian refugee woman and girl, said a resident.

Arsal's residents strongly support the Syrian rebels, who regularly use the surrounding rugged hills as a supply route into Syria. It lies just across from the rugged Qalamoun region, where forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have been on the offensive since February, trying to seize the rebel-held town of Yabroud.

Deputy mayor Ahmad Fliti said at least eight strikes hit around the town's edges and the desolate Wadi Hmaied area, where hundreds of Syrian refugees — some of the tens of thousands in the area — live in a sprawling tent encampment.

While Syrian aircraft have struck near Arsal in the past, deputy mayor Fliti said the air attacks have intensified since that campaign began.

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Goldenberg reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed from Beirut.