Syrian regime recaptures Golan border crossing
RAMALLAH // Rebels battled government troops yesterday for control of a crossing between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, threatening further spillover from the Syrian civil war.
Forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad retook the crossing in the demilitarised zone between Syria and Israeli-held territory after rebels seized it yesterday morning, Israeli sources said.
The incident marked the first time since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 that insurgents captured parts of the area, which had been kept relatively tranquil by Israel and Syria after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Two UN peacekeepers were injured during shelling in the area, a UN peacekeeping spokesman said. As a result of the fighting, Austria said it would withdraw its 380 peacekeepers from the 1,000-strong UN monitoring force.
The fighting took place a day after Syria's military, backed by Shiite fighters from the Lebanese Hizbollah group, routed the country's largely Sunni rebels fighters in the Syrian city of Qusair.
Israel worries its boundary with Syria could become a haven for Islamic radicals to mount attacks on the part of the Golan Heights it captured from Syrian forces during the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli warplanes also have carried out several air strikes inside Syria since the beginning of the year, reportedly targeting sophisticated Russian and Iranian weaponry that was being transferred to Hizbollah fighters.
Early yesterday, Rami Abdelrahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, a watchdog based in Britain, said rebels had "seized the crossing near the old city of Quneitra in the occupied Golan Heights".
He said there had been "heavy explosions and fierce clashing ongoing in the area".
The crossing is named after the nearby city of Quneitra, where there were also reports of intense fighting.
Witnesses on the Israeli side of the boundary said they heard exploding shells and the staccato crackle of automatic weapons fire in the area, and plumes of smoke could be seen rising overhead.
The Israeli military, which also reported the rebel capture of the Quneitra crossing on Army Radio, ordered farmers not to approach the crossing. It is used for transiting agricultural produce and residents of the local Druze population between Israel and Syria.
The Quneitra area is located only about 60 kilometres from Damascus. Though Syria's government has lost control over other crossings along the borders of Turkey and Iraq, it appears to be shoring up its western border areas and securing a corridor to the Mediterranean coast from Damascus that runs through Qusayr.
Members of the roughly 1,000-strong UN team, known as the Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), had retreated back to their barracks in Syrian-controlled territory because of the fighting, a spokesperson for the Austrian defence ministry said.
During a visit to Paris, Herve Ladsous, the head of UN peacekeeping operations, said there had been "shooting" near Quneitra and called the last year of UN operations in the area "extremely confrontational".
"We are doing everything we can to reduce risks. We have closed posts that were too exposed, reinforced our equipment and vehicles, and our activities are more static," he said.
*With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Updated: June 7, 2013 04:00 AM