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Damascus/JERUSALEM: Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad bombarded the Ras Al Ain area on the border with Turkey yesterday, days after the town fell to rebels during an advance that has sent thousands of refugees fleeing for safety. Helicopters circled above the town and opposition activists said they had strafed targets near the village of Tal Halaf.
The Arab and Kurdish town of Ras Al Ain fell to the Free Syrian Army on Thursday in fighting that sent 9,000 fleeing in a 24-hour period, one of a largest refugee influxes into Turkey of the 19-month civil war.
Tank rounds slammed into the western part of the town yesterday and a reporter on the Turkish side of the border saw black smoke rising over the area.
Rebels and forces loyal to Assad exchanged artillery fire and some rounds appeared to land just inside Turkey. “It’s a disaster over there,” a man shouted to reporters as he crossed into the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar. Ambulances with sirens wailing ferried wounded people from the Turkish side of the border for treatment at a local clinic. With winter setting in, over 120,000 Syrians are now sheltering in Turkish camps, deepening alarm in Ankara.
Israel fired a guided missile into Syria yesterday in a potent “warning shot” after mortar fire from fighting between Syrian troops and rebels hit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for the second time in four days.
Israel Radio said it was the first direct engagement of the Syrian military on the Golan since the countries’ 1973 war. It highlighted international fears that Syria’s civil war could ignite wider regional conflict.
An Israeli military source said troops fired a Tammuz missile towards a Syrian army mortar crew that had launched a shell which overshot the Golan disengagement fence on Sunday, exploding near a Jewish settlement without causing casualties.
The missile, known internationally as Spike, can be guided to its target by an operator who sees a live video image from an onboard camera in its nose. There were no reported casualties in what was evidently a demonstration of fire-power.
In an official statement, the Israeli military said soldiers had “fired warning shots towards Syrian areas” but did not mention the missile or its target destination. “The IDF (Israel Defence Force) has filed a complaint through the UN forces operating in the area, stating that fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity,” the statement said.
There was no immediate comment from the 1,000-man United Nations Disengagement Observer Force which patrols the area, and no reaction from Syria.
Spillover violence this month from Syria onto the Golan has jangled the nerves of Israelis worried the once-quiet front will add to threats facing the Jewish state from Islamic militants in neighbouring Lebanon, Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai. There have been similar worries in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon about incidents on their own borders with Syria, where forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad have been battling rebels for 19 months.
Interviewed by Israel’s Army Radio earlier on Sunday, Defence Minister Ehud Barak was asked about public warnings he and another senior official issued to Assad last week to rein in Syrian sweeps against rebels near the Golan. “The message has certainly been relayed. To tell you confidently that no shell will fall? I cannot. If a shell falls, we will respond,” Barak said, without elaborating. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also speaking before yesterday’s mortar strike on the Golan, told his cabinet Israel was “closely following what is happening on our border with Syria .. and (is) prepared for any development”.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the strategic plateau in 1981, a move not recognised internationally. In all past peace talks with Israel, Syria has insisted on the Golan’s return.
The two countries signed a disengagement agreement in 1974, a year after another Arab-Israeli conflict, and though they are still technically at war the Golan had been mostly quiet since.
Another Syrian mortar bomb, one of a salvo, struck a Golan settlement on Thursday but did not explode. Separately, Israel complained to the United Nations this month after three Syrian tanks entered the Golan demilitarised zone, and said one of its army jeeps had been hit by Syrian gunfire. No one was hurt.Agencies