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Syrian rebel offensive jolts Israel

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

From the Israeli side of the Golan, Syrian tanks and armoured 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 TV stations showed images of Israeli tourists flocking to the Golan to look across the frontier and watch the fighting.

Israeli troops along the border were on high alert, although the military said no special actions had been taken in response to the escalation. "We are following very carefully what's happening in Syria," deputy defence minister Danny Danon said. "We will do whatever is necessary to protect the interests of Israel."

Israel fears that Islamic militants who have joined the rebel ranks in trying to remove President Bashar Assad will turn their guns towards Israel if they topple the Syrian leader.

Islamic groups are believed to be active in the fighting in the Golan area. Israel has also expressed concerns that Assad's sophisticated weapons could slip into the hands of hostile groups, including Assad's ally, Hezbollah.

The Jewish state has kept a wary eye on the fighting next door since the conflict erupted in March 2011 and in recent months has been bolstering its forces in the area and reinforcing a fence along the frontier.

The rebels overran the border position near the abandoned town of Quneitra early on 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 gunbattles forced peacekeepers to seek shelter in a nearby base and the Philippine military said one of its men in the force was wounded in the leg when a mortar or artillery shell struck the area. United Nations diplomats said an Indian peacekeeper was also injured.

In Vienna, Austrian leaders said the fighting made it necessary to withdraw their troops. Defence minister Gerhard Klug said he expected the withdrawal to be done within two to four weeks, but it was possible to complete it "within a few hours" if new violence threatened the soldiers' security. "For the first time, it was not possible for the Syrian government to guarantee proper support of the UN," he said.


From Belfast Telegraph