Clashes erupt in Syria near Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
BEIRUT -- Fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and government troops erupted Thursday at a United Nations-monitored checkpoint, the heaviest battle to date near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The checkpoint near the town of Quneitra, Syria’s sole crossing into the Golan Heights, was overrun in the morning by rebels in a symbolic victory that was reportedly reversed a few hours later when Syrian government forces recaptured the area.
As of Thursday afternoon, three mortar rounds from the fighting had landed in the Golan Heights as Syrian soldiers and rebels battled for control of the town, according to Israeli military officials. It could not be independently verified which side controlled the checkpoint.
“We are tracking events very closely,’’ an Israeli military spokesman said. “It’s a fluid situation. But we are seeing this as an internal Syrian issue.”
The official Syrian Arab News Agency claimed the army had “repelled terrorist groups,” the term used by the government for rebel forces. The report said Syrian soldiers had killed “a large number” of rebels and were hunting remaining opposition fighters who were fleeing to the nearby village of Qahtaniya.
An abandoned ghost town in rugged terrain with rows of empty and destroyed houses, Quneitra was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War but retaken by Syria in 1973. The struggle for control over Quneitra continued until the two sides signed an armistice in 1974. United Nations forces have been stationed there ever since.
There have been sporadic outbreaks of fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces near the Golan Heights in recent months. Israeli positions have also come under fire, prompting return fire from the Israelis.
Austria announced Thursday that it plans to withdraw its soldiers from the U.N. monitoring mission in the Golan Heights due to the danger posed by the fighting.
Thursday’s clashes – which came a day after the Syrian army pushed rebels from the strategic town of Qusair, near Lebanon -- were the most intense to date in the area.
The potential loss of the only functioning humanitarian crossing between Israel and Syria, combined with fighting moving closer to residential communities on the Israeli side, have worried the Israeli government. Safety measures were quickly implemented in response to the clashes, with the Israel Defense Forces telling farmers to stay out of orchards and other areas.
In other developments Thursday, two injured Syrians were brought into Israel for medical treatment in the city of Safed. Israeli officials would not say whether the patients were fighters or civilians. But a live grenade was reportedly found on one of them, resulting in the evacuation of the hospital’s emergency room.
Sandels is a special correspondent. Staff writer Edmund Sanders and news assistant Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.
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