BEIRUT – Syrian rebels, including fighters from an al-Qaida-linked group, seized control of a frontier crossing with Israel in the Golan Heights on Wednesday after heavy clashes with President Bashar Assad’s forces, activists and rebels said.
The capture of the post along Syria’s de facto border in the Golan held more symbolic value than strategic, but rebels said it would provide relief to nearby villages that were under siege by government troops.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an array of rebel fighters, including from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, took the crossing after heavy fighting that left at least 20 Syrian soldiers and an unknown number of rebels dead.
It said clashes also raged in the towns of Jaba, Tal Kroum and Rawadi in Quneitra province.
Gen. Ibrahim Jbawi, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s southern front, confirmed the rebel gains, as did the Local Coordination Committees activist group.
Jbawi said Syrian forces still control another crossing nearby, typically used to search products entering from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights into Syria — usually, crates of apples.
Kenan Mohammed, a spokesman for the Western-backed Syrian opposition, said rebels aimed to push Assad’s troops from all of Quneitra. He also said opposition forces posed no threat to Israel.
“Our aim isn’t Israel right now, and we in the FSA haven’t targeted Israeli lands,” he said, adding that the rebels’ focus is on Assad and the extremist Islamic State group. “The matter of Israel — it’s not for now, and it’s more political.”
He denied there had been any collusion with Israel about seizing the border crossing.
The fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan frontier spilled over into Israel, with errant fire wounding an army officer, Israel’s military said. It did not immediately comment on the crossing takeover.
From the Israeli side of the de facto border, large clouds of smoke could be seen, as gunfire and explosions sounded in the distance. Israeli soldiers observed the fighting.
Israel has avoided taking sides in the war, but has responded when the violence has spilled across the border. In its response, the military said it targeted two Syrian army positions and “hits were confirmed.” It gave no further details.
Israel says it holds the Syrian government responsible for any violence that emanates from its territory.
Israel captured the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel’s annexation of the area has never been recognized internationally.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.