Israel downplays Syrian troop activity in central Lebanon

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JERUSALEM — Israel is playing down reports of Syrian troop movements in central Lebanon, saying that there is no reason to panic.

The Lebanese paper An-Nahar reported that during the weekend, Syrian vehicles, including tanks, were seen moving from the mountainous Metn region northeast of Beirut toward the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Sources described the redeployment as a defense move against an Israeli air attack.

In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister David Levy warned against misinterpreting the maneuvers.

"Regarding these maneuvers, we are used to them, we are following them, and we must not get into a panic."

Syria has some 40,000 troops stationed in Lebanon.

In recent weeks, a number of media reports in Israel suggested that Damascus might be considering a military option in an effort to force a political solution to the deadlocked Golan Heights negotiations.

During a visit last week to Israel's southern Lebanon security zone, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a painful Israeli retaliation if hostilities escalate there.

Netanyahu also accused Syria of fighting an indirect war with Israel through Hezbollah, whose heavy shelling of northern Israel earlier this year sparked Israel's Operation Peace for Galilee in Lebanon.

But Levy on Monday reiterated Israel's interest in resuming peace talks with Syria.

Speaking to reporters after meeting in Jerusalem with his Japanese counterpart, Levy said Israel was still waiting for an answer from Syria to Israel's proposal "to talk without preconditions."

Israel offered to renew Golan Heights talks with Syria after weeks of escalating rhetoric between the two countries.

Netanyahu opposes the previous Labor government's reported offer to withdraw from most of the heights in return for peace.