BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Thursday captured a crossing point along a cease-fire line with Israel in the contested Golan Heights, a development that could deepen Israeli concerns over the growing role of Islamic radicals in the civil war near its northern frontier.
Also Thursday, al-Qaida's leader urged Sunni Muslims to spare no effort to join the battle in Syria, overthrow President Bashar Assad and set up Islamic rule in the country.
The call by Ayman al-Zawahri came a day after the Syrian army, backed by Shiite Hezbollah militants, captured a strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon in a significant blow to the opposition fighters, who are predominantly Sunni.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in more the 2-year-old Syrian conflict that has taken increasingly sectarian overtones. The opposition fighters are mostly Sunnis and Assad's regime is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot group of Shiite Islam.
Islamic groups, such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, are the most organized and most effective force fighting on the rebel side in Syria. The U.S. and its European allies, who have backed the opposition share Israel's concern that Islamic radical factions could take over the rebel ranks.
The crossing in the Quneitra area, which is patrolled by Austrian U.N. peacekeepers, was overrun and seized by the rebels early on Thursday, said Col. Michael Bauer of the Austrian defense ministry.
Bauer told The Associated Press in Vienna that the Austrian peacekeepers pulled back from the crossing earlier and were unharmed. The ministry's crisis committee was meeting to evaluate the situation, he said.
The Austrian contingent is part of a U.N. peacekeeping force that patrols the Golan, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. The Quneitra is the only crossing along the cease-fire line and primarily serves the U.N. peace keepers and Druse villagers moving between the Israeli- and Syrian-controlled Golan.
The Britain-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels attacked Syrian regime checkpoints and their armored vehicles, and took control of the crossing, located near the old city of Quneitra.
The activist group, which relies on a network on informants inside Syria, said there were intense clashes underway between regime forces and rebels in the area and that the control of the crossing shifted between the two sides during the day. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
From the Israeli side of the Golan, tanks and armored vehicles could be seen from about a kilometer (half mile) away in the Syrian-controlled part of the territory. Thick smoke and flames rose from the area and a large fire raged.
Syrian state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV denied that the rebels control the crossing, saying the army was pursuing "terrorists" — a term the government uses for opposition fighters — in the Golan.
The Israeli military did not confirm the crossing was overrun by Syrian rebels, but said the area had been declared a "closed military zone" and was off limits to journalists because of fighting nearby.
The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as peaceful protests against Assad's regime, then turned into a civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a harsh government crackdown on dissent. Lately, the fighting has increasingly spilled over Syria's borders into neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where factions that support opposing sides in Syria have frequently clashed.
There have been previous incidents in the Golan, with gunfire and mortar shells striking the Israel-controlled zone in recent months. Israel believes most of the fire is incidental spillover but in some cases it has said the strikes were deliberate.
In one such incident last month, Syrian troops targeted an Israeli jeep they said had crossed the cease-fire line into the Syria-controlled sector. Syria said it launched two missiles in self-defense, accusing Israel of violating the cease-fire deal. After the 1967 capture of the strategic plateu, Israel later annexed the Golan Heights. Syria wants the territory back.
In the latest spillover in Lebanon, 10 rockets fired from Syria hit the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek shortly before midnight Wednesday, wounding one person and causing material damage, according to a Lebanese army statement.
The statement said troops clashed with gunmen near the border town of Arsal after gunmen fired at a military post in the area. It said two gunmen, one of them Syrian, were killed in the overnight fighting and the rest fled.
Al-Zawahri tapped into the deepening Sunni-Shiite rift, calling on Sunnis everywhere to devote their lives, money and expertise to the fight to overthrow the regime, set up Islamic rule in Syria and prevent a U.S.-allied government from taking over after Assad.
The al-Qaida leader also urged Sunnis to "rise above their differences" and fight expanding Shiite influence in Syria. The authenticity of al-Zawahri's message, which came in an audio recording on the Internet, could not be independently confirmed but it was posted on a militant website commonly used by al-Qaida.
Al-Zawahri has repeatedly called for holy war in Syria and has blasted Lebanese Hezbollah militants and Iran for supporting Assad.
Hezbollah has a vested interest in the survival of Assad's regime. It deepened its involvement in the civil war by sending fighters over the past month to battle rebels in Qusair, an overwhelmingly Sunni town and an opposition stronghold in western Syria.
After a grueling three-week battle, the Syrian army on Wednesday regained control of Qusair, which has served as a conduit for shipments of rebel weapons, fighters and supplies smuggled from Lebanon. For the regime, the town was equally important since it lies between Damascus, the seat of Assad's government, and the Alawite heartland near the Mediterranean coast.
Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna and Aaron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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