Syrian army recaptures Golan crossing from rebels
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Heavy fighting between Syrian regime and rebel forces in the Golan Heights on Thursday injured two UN peacekeepers as the Syrian army recaptured a crossing between Syria and Israel after it briefly fell to rebel control.
Two UN peacekeepers were injured on Thursday amid heavy fighting between Syrian regime and rebel forces in the Golan Heights ceasefire area as the only crossing between Syria and Israel briefly fell to rebel control.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the two peacekeepers “suffered minor injuries from the fallout of heavy weapons fire in the area”. He declined, however, to provide details of whether the peacekeepers were wounded by Syrian regime or rebel fire.
While the UN has not officially revealed the nationalities of the peacekeepers, the Philippine government revealed earlier Thursday that one of its troops in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights had been wounded by shrapnel.
The latest injuries came amid fierce fighting in the tinderbox area between Syrian rebel fighters and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebels briefly seized the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria earlier Thursday before Syrian regime forces regained control of the only crossing between the nations.
As the battle for control of the strategic Golan Heights reached Israel’s doors, Austria announced it was withdrawing the country's 377 UN peacekeepers from the area.
In a statement on Thursday, Austrian Chancellor Werner Fayman and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said that “the... threat to the Austrian soldiers has reached an unacceptable level. The events of this morning show that it is no longer justifiable to wait and see,” before concluding, "The secured movement and supply of our troops on the Golan can no longer be guaranteed."
Austria has been part of the UNDOF in the Golan Heights since its inception in 1974 and is currently one of the biggest contributors there, with some 380 troops.
Other contributors to the 1,000-strong mission include the Philippines, India, Morocco and Moldova.
‘Only 70 meters’ between Israeli and Syrian positions
Tensions were high on Thursday in the Golan Heights, an escarpment overlooking Israeli and Syrian territories, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
Reporting from Jerusalem, FRANCE 24’s Gallagher Fenwick said the Israeli army was closely monitoring the situation in the Quneitra crossing zone.
“This is a very worrying development for the Israeli army,” said Fenwick. “There’s only 70 metres between the Israeli position and the Syrian position at that crossing and it was the very first time, since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, that rebels had gained control of that crossing point.”
But the rebel control of the crossing was short-lived, with Israeli military sources confirming that Syrian regime forces retook the symbolically significant crossing hours later and that it was now relatively quiet in the area.
Rebels lose Quneitra a day after losing Qusair
The volatility in the Golan Heights underscored the regional spillover of the Syrian conflict that experts have been warning about for more than a year. Thursday’s events brought those threats to a hair-raising reality – albeit briefly.
“The Israeli Army does not feel particularly close to either parties fighting there - at least not officially - whether it’s the rebels that often identifies with the global jihad or the Syrian regime with Bashar al-Assad authorising Hezbollah fighters to help him,” explained Fenwick.
The brief fall of the Quneitra crossing came a day after Syrian regime forces – aided by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters – seized the strategic town of Qusair from rebel control. Syrian government and rebel forces fought an intense battle over the past three weeks for control of the town, which lies on a critical cross-border supply route between Lebanon and Syria.