Syrian troops recapture border crossing at Golan Heights after fierce fighting

Austria to pull out its 380 troops, the largest contingent in UN force at Golan

Civilians and forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad celebrate in Qusayr after the forces took control of the town from rebel fighters. Photograph: Rami Bleibel/Reuters

Syrian troops backed up by tanks and armoured vehicles yesterday recaptured the Quneitra crossing-point on the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, driving off rebel gunmen who had overrun the site. Two UN observers were wounded by shrapnel landing close to their base in the buffer zone.

Israel responded by declaring its side of the line a “closed military zone”, deploying tanks, and warning farmers to keep away. Israel also complained to the UN that Syrian forces had violated the 1974 ceasefire agreement by moving armoured vehicles into the area.

In recent months rebels belonging to the radical Jabhat al-Nusra and other fundamentalist groupings have moved into villages in the Quneitra area, creating concern in Israel that they could carry out operations in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967 and annexed in 1981.

Stray shells have previously fallen in the Golan and an Israeli vehicle was fired upon by Syrian troops last month, prompting Israel to warn Damascus that it would respond to attacks.


Austrian pullout
Austria said it would pull out its 380 troops, the largest contingent in the 913-member force, stating that danger to Austria's forces had "risen to an unacceptable level". Croatia, Canada and Japan have already withdrawn their observers. The Philippines has threatened to repatriate its 342 observers, leaving only Indian troops to hold the line of separation.

Syrian rebels also responded to the fall to Syrian troops bolstered by Lebanese Shia Hizbullah guerrillas of their stronghold at the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr by firing 11 rockets into the Lebanese city of Baalbek where Hizbullah has a strong presence. Two missiles landed near Baalbek's monumental Roman ruins.

Two gunmen were killed by Lebanese troops after another attack on a checkpoint at Arsal, a border village where rebels have based themselves.

Saudi Arabia urged Lebanese fighters in the northern port city of Tripoli to halt clashes related to the conflict in Syria.

Foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the "bloody events taking place in Tripoli . . . benefit nobody but those who do not mean well for Lebanon. "

Fresh clashes between pro-rebel Sunnis and pro-regime heterodox Shia Alawites have slain eight since the weekend.

Across the border in Syria, troops bombarded eastern Bweida, a village where rebels fleeing Qusayr had sought sanctuary, said the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “Qusayr is completely destroyed and totally deserted,” observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Sunni Muslims to unite and topple president Bashar al-Assad and defeat US plans to transform Syria into a client state which would “safeguard Israel’s security”.

He also warned Sunnis not to permit their “jihad” to become a “western tool against Iran”.

In Cairo, Lebanese foreign minister Adnan Mansour defended Hizbullah's involvement in the battle for Qusayr during an Arab League meeting.

“Insurgency in the countryside [around Qusayr] affected 20 villages [where inhabitants were threatened with] murder, torture, displacement, abduction, destruction of homes, mosques and churches and the confiscation of land and crops.”

'Partners in tyranny'
The US condemned the army's assault on Qusayr and accused the Syrian government and Hizbullah of being "partners in tyranny" but said there had to be further investigations into the alleged use by the regime of chemical weapons.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said British and French reports concerning chemical weapons should not be used as a pretext for an invasion while the Swedish scientist in charge of the UN investigation reacted cautiously to these charges.

Ake Sellstrom warned that the chain-of-custody of samples taken by French journalists in Syria was not ensured.

In a 33-page report, Human Rights Watch reveals how government and rebel forces fire on schools or use them as military command posts and camps while teachers and state security agents interrogate and abuse students for alleged anti-government activities.