U.S. Urges Syria and Israel to Adhere to Long-Standing Ceasefire

The US State Department warned both Israel and Syria Thursday to avoid any actions that might inflame an already volatile situation along the border shared by the two countries.

Pictured: An Israeli tank is loaded onto a truck near the Quneitra crossing with Syria, on Thursday, June 6, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
"We've been very clear about our concerns over regional instability caused by the crisis in Syria. ...We continue to call upon all parties to avoid any action that would jeopardize the long-held ceasefire between Israel and Syria," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki during a briefing with reporters Thursday night.

"There are a lot of complicated issues around the Golan Heights ... but any effort to take this fight out of Syria into neighboring areas is of concern to us, just as the influx of foreign fighters is of concern to us as well," she added.

The warning comes on the heels of reports that 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 TV stations showed images of Israeli tourists flocking to the Golan to look across the frontier and gawk at 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.

By nightfall, the situation appeared to be quieting down. Israel's deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, said forces remained on high alert, but no special actions had been taken.

"We are following very carefully what's happening in Syria," Danon told The Associated Press. "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 oust President Bashar Assad will turn their guns toward 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 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. UN diplomats said an Indian peacekeeper was also injured.

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

Defense Minister Gerhard Klug said he expected the withdrawal to be done within two to four weeks, but it is 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.

The decision dealt a heavy to blow to the 911-member UN force, which includes the 377 Austrian peacekeepers as well as 341 from the Philippines and 193 from India. Croatia withdrew its contingent in March amid fears they would be targeted.


SOURCE: THE TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF / AP
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