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U.S. concerned Hezbollah could obtain advanced weapons from Syria: Panetta

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The United States is also concerned that “chaos” in Syria could allow Hezbollah to obtain sophisticated weapons from the Damascus regime, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told AFP in an interview, and days after Israeli jets bombed a weapons convoy in the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Speaking two days after Israel carried out a bombing raid on a military site outside Damascus, Panetta said Washington was worried the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah could exploit the 22-month conflict in Syria.

“The chaos in Syria has obviously created an environment where the possibility of these weapons, you know, going across the border and falling into the hands of Hezbollah has become a greater concern,” said Panetta, who is due to retire this month as Pentagon chief.

The Israeli raid on Wednesday targeted surface-to-air missiles and an adjacent military complex believed to house chemical agents, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Syria has threatened to retaliate.

Asked about the air strike, Panetta said he could not disclose discussions with the Israelis but suggested Washington fully backed the move.

“Without discussing the communications that we have on a regular basis with Israel or the specifics of that operation, because that's something they know more about, we have expressed the concern that we have to do everything we can to make sure that sophisticated weapons like SA-17 missiles or, for that matter chemical biological weapons, do not fall into the hands of terrorists,” he said.

Asked if the United States supported the Israeli action, he said: “The United States supports whatever steps are taken to make sure these weapons don't fall into the hands of terrorists.”

Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, but its officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

Israeli officials have said they feared Assad may be losing his grip on some chemical weapons, including around Damascus, to rebel groups which are also potentially hostile to Israel. U.S. and European security sources told Reuters they were confident that chemical weapons were not in the convoy which was bombed.

Wednesday's action could have been a rapid response to an opportunity. But a stream of Israeli comment on Syria in recent days may have been intended to limit surprise in world capitals.

The head of the Israeli air force said only hours before the attack that his corps, which has an array of the latest jet bombers, attack helicopters and unmanned drones at its disposal, was involved in a covert “campaign between wars”.

“This campaign is 24/7, 365 days a year,” Major-General Amir Eshel told a conference on Tuesday. “We are taking action to reduce the immediate threats, to create better conditions in which we will be able to win the wars, when they happen.”