Syrian army retakes Golan crossing from rebels: reports

QUNEITRA CROSSING – Syria’s army recaptured the only Golan Heights crossing on the ceasefire line with Israel Thursday, 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 materialises, analysts say.

And Russia said Syria’s foreign minister would lead a government delegation at the “Geneva 2″ talks which have been delayed largely over disagreement in the opposition ranks about who will attend.

The rebels briefly took control of the Quneitra crossing, strategically and symbolically important for its proximity to Israel and to the Syrian capital, 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 moving inside the area.

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.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous confirmed there had been “incidents” along the armistice line, and described the situation as “very sensitive”.

In Vienna, the government said Austria will withdraw its UN contingent as the “mission can no longer be maintained for military reasons”.

Shrapnel from the fighting wounded a Philippine UN peacekeeper, the Filipino military said. One Israeli source said an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers had been taken to an Israeli hospital.

The crossing falls within a UN-controlled buffer zone.

It is the only direct passage between Israel and Syria and used almost exclusively by Druze residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights 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 recognised.

Thursday’s developments came as soldiers chasing down rebels who fled from Qusayr fired missiles at Eastern Bweida about 14 kilometres (nine miles) away, said the Observatory.

Its director Rami Abdel Rahman expressed concern for the safety of “at least 500 injured people” sheltering in the village.

Qusayr, located just 10 kilometres from Lebanon, was once home to more than 25,000 people.

However, thousands fled during the blistering 17-day assault by government forces led by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

“Qusayr is completely destroyed, and totally deserted,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“The rebels put up a fierce resistance, but they didn’t have the means to fight back,” he 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 they had lost 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 said the “heroic victory” served as 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 launched from across the border with Syria hit the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Two landed in the city’s Roman ruins and the other three hit the city centre, a security source told AFP. 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 the French government now says 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 to end the 26-month conflict, which is estimated to have killed more than 94,000 people.

One of the main stumbling blocks was disagreement over who could take part.

Russia said on Thursday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would lead his country’s delegation to the talks.

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