Israel has called on the United States to help prevent an escalation of violence with Lebanon and Syria. The appeal follows an attack on Israeli soldiers by members of the militant Islamic group Hezbollah.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer accuses Syria and Lebanon of playing with fire, following an attack on Thursday by the militant Islamic group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which injured three soldiers.

The soldiers are stationed in an area that Hezbollah calls Sheba'a Farms and says belongs to Lebanon.

Israel says it captured the land from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war and the Hezbollah has no justification for continuing its attacks.

Following the wounding of the soldiers, Israel bombed and shelled suspected Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.

Mr. Ben-Eliezer raised the matter in talks with U.S. envoy David Satterfield, saying that any escalation of violence in the area could destabilize the region and affect American plans to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Syria has about 30,000 troops stationed in Lebanon and is the country's main power broker. It also supplies arms to the Hezbollah.

Mr. Ben-Eliezer says he is concerned that the latest attack is effectively a warning that Syria and the Hezbollah would try to open up a new zone of conflict, in order to pre-empt any American strike against Iraq.

Syria, under the leadership of former President Hafez Assad, was opposed to Iraq during the Gulf War. However, a change in policy has been noted since his son Basher took over as president and strategic analysts believe that Syria has been developing closer ties with Iraq.

According to Israeli media reports, Mr. Satterfield says he will take up the issue in talks with Syrian officials.

He reportedly rejected the claim that the Syrians would risk a confrontation with Washington by deliberately disrupting U.S. plans for a possible strike against Iraq.

At the same time, he said, he was concerned that continued attacks by the Hezbollah might provoke Israel into retaliating against Syrian targets.