Syrian rebel offensive in Golan jolts Israel

QUNEITRA, Golan Heights — Syrian rebels briefly seized control of a border crossing along the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Thursday, prompting the withdrawal of a major Austrian peacekeeping contingent and heightening fears in Israel that it could soon be dragged into the neighboring country's civil war.

From the Israeli side of the Golan, Syrian tanks and armored vehicles could be seen across the border. Large explosions could be heard throughout the day, and thick smoke and flames rose from the area.

Israeli troops along the border were on high alert, although the military said no special actions had been taken in response to the escalation. By nightfall, the situation appeared to be quieting down.

Israel fears that Islamic militants who have joined the rebel ranks in trying to oust President Bashar Assad will turn their guns toward Israel if they topple the Syrian leader. Israel has also expressed concerns that Assad's sophisticated weapons could slip into the hands of hostile groups, including Assad's ally, Hezbollah.

The rebels overran the border position near the abandoned town of Quneitra early Thursday, holding their positions for several hours before Syrian government troops retook it. The international peacekeepers who maintain a 40-year-old truce receive most of their supplies through that position from Israel.

Fierce gun battles forced peacekeepers to seek shelter in a nearby base, and the Philippine military said one of its men serving in the force was wounded in the leg when a mortar or artillery shell struck the area. U.N. diplomats said an Indian peacekeeper also was injured.

In Vienna, Austrian leaders said the fighting made it necessary to withdraw their troops.

Syrian rebel offensive in Golan jolts Israel 06/06/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 6, 2013 11:06pm]

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