Syrian troops recapture Golan crossing, say Israelis

Austria to withdraw UN peacekeepers from monitoring force given worsening fighting

Smoke rises as a fire burns near the Kuneitra border crossing, as seen from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Smoke rises as a fire burns near the Kuneitra border crossing, as seen from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Thu, Jun 6, 2013, 12:50

Syrian troops have amid heavy fighting retaken a UN-manned crossing between the country and Iraeli-occupied territory that the rebels had taken earlier today, Israeli security sources have reported.

Austria has announced that it will withdraw its peacekeepers from the UN monitoring force on the Golan Heights given worsening fighting , the government said on today.

Austrians account for about 380 of the 1,000-strong UN force monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel and their departure will deal a serious blow to the mission.

The rarely used crossing, in a UN-patrolled demilitarised 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 Defence 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. An Austrian spokesman said the peacekeepers had withdrawn to their bunkers and had suffered no casualties.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 President Bashar al-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 removed to Israel for treatment. She could not say whether they were rebels or army soldiers.

Syrian state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV had earlier denied the rebels were controlling the crossing point. It said the Syrian army is pursuing “terrorists” in the Golan.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters pushed toward villages near Qusair today, a day after driving rebels from the border town shattered in weeks of combat.

Fierce fight

Insurgents seeking to overthrow President al-Assad were putting up a fierce fight around the villages of Debaa and Buwayda as their opponents attacked rebel-held territory, activists and a photographer in the area said.

The villages were enduring heavy artillery fire, according to the Syrian Observatory.

The fall of Qusair after a two-week offensive by Hizbullah fighters and Assad troops backed by warplanes was a significant victory for the president as he battles an uprising-turned-insurgency in which more than 80,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

Qusair is in central Homs province, which borders Lebanon in the west and Iraq in the east. Debaa is 5 km northeast of Qusair and Buwayda another 7 km in the same direction.

Many Sunni Muslim fighters and civilians are thought to have fled there via a route left open by pro-Assad forces besieging Qusair, a town long used as a rebel supply route from Lebanon.

A security source close to Syrian forces said they had deliberately opened exit routes from Qusair in hope of avoiding a costly fight to the death inside the town, where hundreds of civilians, along with about 1,000 wounded people, were said to be still living out of an original population of 30,000.

Jubilant troops

But the ruined town was empty when jubilant Syrian troops and Shia Hezbollah fighters finally overran the centre.

Heavy civilian casualties may have been averted for now, but rebels say the risk remains as Assad’s forces pursue their foes.

Assad loyalists say the capture of Qusair not only cuts rebel supply lines, but will also help troops regain control of central Syria and isolate rebel bastions in the north and south.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said today reports chemical weapons have being used in Syria should not be used to justify foreign military intervention in the more than two-year-old conflict. “The issue of chemical weapons has become the subject of speculation and provocation,” Mr Lavrov said after meeting with counterparts from Baltic countries. “I do not rule out that somebody wants to use it to state that a red line has been crossed and a foreign intervention is necessary.”