Syria: Attack on military facility was a ‘declaration of war’ by Israel

Story highlights

CNN exclusive: Syria's deputy foreign minister says his country will retaliate against Israel

NEW: The U.N. secretary-general expresses "grave concern" over the reported attack

Witness: "Everything kept exploding. ... We could hear people screaming"

Israel prepares for potential rocket attacks, closes northern airspace to civil flights

Read a version of this story in Arabic.

Damascus, Syria CNN  — 

A series of massive explosions illuminated the dark sky over Damascus early Sunday, igniting renewed claims that Israel has launched attacks into the war-torn country.

Syria’s government said the explosions were the second Israeli airstrike in three days. The latest target, officials said, was a military research facility outside the Syrian capital. A top Syrian official told CNN in an exclusive interview that the attack was a “declaration of war” by Israel.

Syrian authorities vowed to retaliate against Israel but did not specify what action they would take.

The Israeli military would not confirm or deny the Syrian claim that Israel fired rockets that hit the Jamraya research center in the Damascus suburbs.

“We do not comment on these reports at all,” an Israeli military representative said.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “grave concern” over the reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria Sunday but stressed that the U.N. is not “in a position to independently verify what has occurred,” his spokesman said.

Sunday’s explosions mark the third time Israel has been accused of striking inside Syria this year.

The blasts rocked a large military area in the suburbs of Syria’s capital, prompting terrified residents nearby to run for cover.

“Everything kept exploding over and over again,” said Anna Deeb, whose family lives just over a mile away. “We could hear gunshots, we could hear people screaming. … We didn’t know what to do, and there was a problem with us breathing because the smoke was too much.”

Syrian state-run TV claimed that the Israeli rocket attack on the research center aided rebels, who have been battling government forces in the region. And the government’s Syrian Arab News Agency said mortar shells “fired by terrorists” damaged residential neighborhoods nearby. But state media reports did not provide details about what type of research occurs in the facility, or how much damage occurred there after Sunday’s attack.

Even with details about the explosion unclear, tensions ran high in the volatile region Sunday amid word of the reported attack, which was condemned by some officials across the Middle East.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad said the attack represented an alliance between Islamic terrorists and Israel.

“When they attack, this is a declaration of war. This is not something that is (new),” al Mekdad said. “We dealt with this on several occasions, and we retaliated the way we wanted, and the retaliation was always painful to Israel, and they will suffer again.”

After an emergency meeting of Syria’s Cabinet on Sunday, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said on state television that the attack “opens the door wide open for all possibilities” but did not specify what those possibilities would be.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby condemned what he called Israeli strikes on Syrian territories and called for the United Nations Security Council to “move immediately in order to stop and prevent Israeli attacks on Syria.” Foreign ministers in Egypt and Iran also condemned the reported Israeli attack.

Ban’s spokesman said the U.N. secretary-general “calls on all sides to exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict.”

Missile defense system a game changer, Israelis say

Amid the heightened tensions, Israel appeared to be stepping up defense efforts.

An Israeli Army official told CNN that two rocket interception batteries have been deployed to northern Israel.

And the Israeli Airport Authority said Sunday that it had closed northern airspace over the country to civil aviation flights.

Attack comes days after reports of another Israeli airstrike

Sunday’s reported attack comes days after U.S. officials told CNN that Israel had conducted an airstrike against Syria.

Two U.S. officials told CNN on Friday that Israel apparently launched an airstrike into Syria on Thursday or Friday.

The Israeli military did not comment on the U.S. claim. But Israel has long said it would target any transfer of weapons to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups as well as any effort to smuggle Syrian weapons into Lebanon that could threaten Israel.

“We are watching everything when it comes to the movement of these types of weapons. We have the means to do that,” a senior Israeli defense official told CNN’s Sara Sidner on Sunday. The official is not authorized to speak to the media.

Shaul Mofaz, a lawmake