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Syria recaptures Golan crossing – Austria to quit Golan, in blow to UN

QUNEITRA CROSSING: Syria’s army recaptured the only Golan Heights crossing on the ceasefire line with Israel yesterday, in another setback for rebels a day after they were blasted out of the strategic town of Qusayr. As the rebels were driven back out of the southwestern plateau, government troops also pursued insurgents who abandoned Qusayr, bombarding a nearby village where they fled to along with hundreds of wounded civilians. Qusayr’s capture gives President Bashar Al- Assad the upper hand if a US-Russian plan for the first direct peace talks between his regime and its opponents materializes, analysts say.

Russia said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would lead a government delegation at the “Geneva 2” talks which have been delayed largely over opposition disputes about who will attend. The rebels briefly took control of the Quneitra crossing, strategically and symbolically important for its proximity to Israel and to Damascus, before being forced out. “The Syrian army has recovered control of the crossing, there are sounds of explosions from time to time but far less than in the morning,” an Israeli source said. An AFP correspondent near the crossing confirmed forces loyal to Assad recaptured the frontier post, saying he could see tanks inside the area. Firefighting trucks on the Syrian side worked to extinguish bush fires sparked by the clashes and civilians on the Israeli side, some with binoculars, watched the pall of smoke in the distance. Both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Israeli army radio said the rebel advance on the plateau was followed by fierce fighting in nearby Quneitra town.

Two peacekeepers suffered “minor injuries” in shelling in the ceasefire zone, a UN peacekeeping spokesman said. One Israeli source said an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers were taken to an Israeli hospital. In Vienna, the government said Austria will withdraw its UN contingent as the “mission can no longer be maintained for military reasons”. “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,” a statement said. Neutral Austria has been part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan since its inception in 1974 and is currently one of the biggest UNDOF contributors, with some 380 troops.

The Quneitra crossing is the only direct passage between Israel and Syria and used almost exclusively by Druze residents of the Golan who are allowed to cross over to study, work or get married. Israel seized a large section of the plateau from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981, in a move the international community never recognized. Yesterday’s developments came as soldiers hunting rebels who fled from Qusayr fired missiles at Eastern Bweida about 14 kilometers away, the Observatory said. Its director Rami Abdel Rahman expressed concern for the safety of “at least 500 injured people” in Eastern Bweida. Qusayr, just 10 kilometers from Lebanon, was once home to more than 25,000 people. However, thousands fled during the blistering 17-day regime assault led by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah. “Qusayr is completely destroyed, and totally deserted,” Abdel Rahman said.

The regime “has called on Qusayr’s residents to return home, but there is nothing but ruins. How are they supposed to return?” Abdel Rahman asked. The rebels conceded losing Qusayr after controlling it for a year, but opposition interim leader George Sabra declared they would fight on “until the whole country is liberated”. The army called the “heroic victory” a warning that it would “crush” the rebels and bring “security and stability to every inch of our land”. Hours after Qusayr fell, at least five rockets fired from Syria hit the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold. Two struck in the city’s Roman ruins and the other three hit the city centre, a security source said. Two people were hurt.

The fighting came as Paris said the international community had to respond to test results from both French and British laboratories confirming the use of banned nerve agent sarin in Syria’s war. The United States initially responded cautiously, but Secretary of State John Kerry said he had asked Paris to share its data, which France said it has done. Russian, US and UN diplomats on Wednesday admitted a widely anticipated peace conference would not take place as planned this month. A date has still to be fixed for the talks on 26-month conflict, which is estimated to have killed more than 94,000 people. — AFP

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This article was published on 07/06/2013