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Israel launched air strikes on Syrian military targets in southern Syria late Monday, after thwarting an attack near the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights.

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In Damascus, the state-run news agency Sana said Israeli helicopters rocketed Syrian army positions near Quneitra in the south but caused only material damage. It also said air defences had gone into action near the Syrian capital.

The Israeli army said its fighters jets, attack helicopters and other warplanes struck Syrian army positions in retaliation for the attempt to lay explosives in the Golan Heights.

"The targets struck include observation posts and intelligence collection systems, anti-aircraft artillery facilities and command and control systems in SAF (Syrian Armed Forces) bases," the army said in statement.

"The IDF holds the Syrian government responsible for all activities on Syrian soil, and will continue operating with determination against any violation of Israeli sovereignty," it said.

Tensions are already high between bitter rivals Israel and Syria.

Last month, Israeli army helicopters struck military targets in southern Syria in retaliation for earlier "munitions" fire towards Israel.

Israel did not directly blame Syrian forces for the munitions fire, but said it held the Damascus government responsible.

And earlier Monday, the Israeli army said it had killed four men laying explosives near the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights.

'Inside Israeli territory'

"They were inside Israeli territory but beyond the fence," military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told journalists in a telephone briefing.

He said an Israeli commando unit lying in wait attacked the intruders shortly after 11 pm Sunday (2000 GMT) with assault rifles and sniper fire backed by air strikes.

"Our estimate is that all four were killed," Conricus said in English, adding that there were no Israeli casualties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday that "the army thwarted an attempted attack on the Syrian front".

"We don't let our guard down," he said, recalling an incident at the Lebanese border last week that prompted Israeli artillery fire across the frontier, as well as rocket fire Sunday evening from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip which led to retaliatory Israeli air strikes.

Israel will "strike anyone who attacks us or tries to attack us", he added.

Possible Hezbollah links

Several Israeli media outlets reported that Monday's actions were in response to an increased threat from the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which has a significant presence in Syria.

Last month, five Iran-backed fighters were killed in an Israeli missile strike south of Damascus, according to Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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