Middle East

Islamists seize Golan Heights border crossing

BEIRUT: Al-Qaeda’s Syria wing the Nusra Front and other Islamist fighters have taken control of a border crossing on the line dividing Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, an activist group said Wednesday.

The fighters, who have vowed to “liberate” the area, captured the Qunaitra post on the Syrian side from forces loyal to President Bashar Assad after fierce clashes, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

However, Stephane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman, said the organization’s peacekeepers could not confirm whether the rebels had seized the crossing, “as fighting is ongoing” at one of its gates.

The crossing is monitored by the United Nations, which oversees traffic between the two enemy countries. The distance between the two countries’ posts is some 200 meters.

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.

Dujarric reported “heavy fighting between the Syrian armed forces and armed members of the opposition” in the Qunaitra area, adding that several mortars had struck near U.N. positions, but that there had been no casualties.

He 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 recognized.

While the Syrian army has a presence around the Golan, some areas are controlled by rebels fighting to topple Assad, including Al-Qaeda-inspired militants.

Rebels last year briefly took the Qunaitra border crossing with Israel and they are now in control of many of the villages in the area.

Separately, Assad issued a decree to form a new government Wednesday, keeping most of his key ministers in place.

Assad was sworn in for a new seven-year term on July 16 after a presidential election that confirmed his grip on power, a process that required him to name a new government.

He re-appointed Wael Halqi as prime minister, having first given him the job in 2012 after his predecessor, Riad Hijab, fled Syria to join the opposition. Halqi, who wields little power in a system dominated by the president, survived a bomb attack on his convoy in Damascus last year.

Critics consider the Cabinet, made up of Baathist loyalists, to be largely symbolic, as power in Syria lies in the hands of Assad and his inner circle of family and elite members of the security forces.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 28, 2014, on page 1.




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