Syrian army retakes Golan crossing point from rebels

Hours after opposition victory over Assad regime forces at Quneitra, media reports indicate that Syrian soldiers have taken back border crossing; IDF tells Golan farmers to keep away from border after mortar shell lands nearby.

June 6, 2013 14:31
3 minute read.
UNDOF soldiers enter Israel from Syria (Ariel  Jer

quneitra crossing 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Syrian rebels seized a UN-manned crossing between Syria and the Golan Heights on Thursday, opposition sources said, but Israeli security sources reported Syrian troops later retook it after heavy fighting.

The rarely used Quneitra crossing, in a UN-patrolled demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights, is the only transit point between Syrian and Israeli disengagement lines set in 1974. Battles for its control seemed likely to heighten Israeli security concerns stoked by Syria's civil war.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and an Austrian Defense Ministry spokesman said rebels had taken the crossing, which is operated by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) near the Syrian city of Quneitra.

Austrians account for about 380 of the 1,000-strong UNDOF mission, and the Austrian spokesman said the peacekeepers had withdrawn to their bunkers and had suffered no casualties.

Several hours after the transit point was seized, Israeli security sources said the Syrian army had recaptured the area, and Syrian state television reported "the crossing is now safe". The Syrian Observatory said it was not clear who was in control.

Israel is worried that the Golan, which it captured from Syria in 1967, and where battles between the two enemies were again fought in 1973, will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by jihadi fighters who are trying to topple Assad.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the area leading to Quneitra had been closed and that two Syrians who were wounded in the fighting had been taken into Israel for treatment. She could not say whether they were rebels or army soldiers.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed Thursday morning that the Quneitra border crossing on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights had been routed by rebels fighting forces loyal to the embattled Assad, Army Radio reported.

Hours later, however, Channel 10's web site quoted Arab news sources as reporting that the Syrian military had regained control over the crossing.

Israeli authorities have instructed their citizens to keep away from the border fence area, as heavy fighting continues between the warring parties.

The IDF filed a complaint to the UN over the Syrian army's presence in the ceasefire area, Israel Radio reported.

The head of the United Nations' peacekeeping operations confirmed there had been incidents on the Syrian-Israeli border.

"Yes there was shooting," Herve Ladsous told reporters during a visit to Paris, adding the UN would maintain its involvement in the nearby Golan Heights region.

"We are following events in the Golan Heights, which is a very sensitive region, with particularly close attention," he added, while not confirming that the crossing had been captured.

Ladsous said the 1,000-strong United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) had taken measures to ensure the safety of its personnel but stressed that its involvement was not called into doubt by the incidents.

"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.

Quneitra is significant since control over the crossing point is considered one of the more symbolic demonstrations of power exercised by the Damascus government.

Israeli military sources told Army Radio in recent weeks that a takeover of the Quneitra crossing by rebels would constitute a major turning point in Jerusalem’s attitude toward the conflict ravaging its neighbor to the northeast.

Earlier on Thursday, a mortar shell landed at a United Nations base in Quneitra, just a few hundred meters from the border fence separating Israel and Syria, according to media reports Thursday.

In addition, authorities have banned civilians from entering Kibbutz Ein Zivan, a communal settlement that lies hundreds of meters away from the border fence, according to Israel Radio.

According to news reports, the military has also sealed off the section of Route 98 which extends from Aloni Habashan to Kibbutz Ein Zivan.

Alex Shalom, an Israeli farmer from the Golan Heights, said he saw heavy smoke rising from the crossing and Israeli military ambulances evacuating people from the site.

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