Israel shells Syria as rebels take border crossing
Syrian rebels, including fighters from an al-Qa'ida-linked group, seized control of a frontier crossing with Israel in the Golan Heights yesterday after heavy clashes with President Bashar al-Assad's forces, activists and rebels said.
The capture of the post along Syria's de facto border in the Golan held more symbolic than strategic value, but rebels said it would provide relief to nearby villages under siege by government troops.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an array of rebel fighters, including from the al-Qa'ida-linked Nusra Front and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, took the crossing after heavy fighting that left at least 20 Syrian soldiers dead.
There were also clashes in the towns of Jaba, Tal Kroum and Rawadi in Quneitra province.
General Ibrahim Jbawi, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's southern front, confirmed the rebel gains. He said Syrian forces still control another crossing nearby, typically used to search products entering from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights into Syria.
Kenan Mohammed, a spokesman for the Western-backed Syrian opposition, said rebels aimed to push Assad's troops from all of Quneitra. He also said opposition forces posed no threat to Israel.
"We in the FSA haven't targeted Israeli lands," he said, adding that the rebels' focus is on Assad and Isis.
The crossing is monitored by the United Nations, including Irish troops, which oversees traffic between the two enemy countries but the distance between the two adversaries' posts is some 200 metres.
During the fighting, two Israelis were wounded by stray bullets, a soldier and a civilian, both in the Golan Heights.Israel responded with artillery fire at two Syrian army positions, the Israeli military said. It was the latest spillover of violence from the three-year conflict.
Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokeswoman, said the organisation's peacekeepers could not confirm whether the rebels had seized the crossing, "as fighting is ongoing" at one of its gates.
Dujarric reported "heavy fighting between the Syrian armed forces and armed members of the opposition" in the Quneitra area, adding that several mortars struck near UN positions near the peacekeepers' base, but that they took shelter, avoiding casualties.
She said the commander of peacekeepers there known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was in touch with Syria and the Israeli military urging both to "exercise restraint and prevent an escalation of the situation."
Shelling from the Syrian civil war has occasionally reached into the Israeli-controlled Golan, occasionally causing injuries and damage to soldiers and civilians. Israel has said the firing has sometimes been deliberately aimed at its troops. Israel captured the western part of the strategic plateau from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it, a move that is not internationally recognised.