BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria said its troops destroyed an Israeli vehicle that crossed into its territory from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday and warned that any attempt to violate its sovereignty would meet “immediate and firm retaliation”.
Israel said the incident took place on its side of Golan ceasefire line and the vehicle was damaged but not destroyed, and none of its soldiers was hurt. It said its troops returned fire.
The clash highlighted the potential for renewed conflict along a frontline that has become increasingly fraught after nearly four decades of calm overseen by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father.
It also came two weeks after Israel launched airstrikes near Damascus against suspected missile stocks after which Syria threatened to retaliate.
Assad is battling a two-year-old uprising in which rebel forces, including radical Islamists, have taken swathes of rural territory and attacked army posts near the Golan frontier.
There are frequent reports of cross-border gunfire from Syria during clashes between army and rebel forces, but Tuesday’s incident was the first time since the start of the crisis that Syria’s armed forces said they targeted Israel’s military.
“Our noble armed forces destroyed an Israeli vehicle ... which entered from the occupied territories and crossed the ceasefire line,” Syria’s military leadership said in a statement broadcast on state media said. The incident occurred at 1:15 am (2215 GMT, Monday), it said.
Shortly afterwards, Israeli forces fired two rockets towards a Syrian position, without causing any casualties, it said.
Israel said its vehicle had been on the Israeli side of the frontier. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said that in response to the Syrian fire, Israeli forces hit a Syrian army target.
“Our policy on Syria is clear: We are not intervening there, of course, in the civil war,” he told reporters.
“But as for the situation in the Golan Heights, we are not allowing and we will not permit a spillover of fire into our territory. Overnight, a Syrian army target was destroyed after such gunfire spilled into our territory in the Golan Heights.”
Tension in the Golan Heights region has been fuelled by the fighting on the Syrian side and several recent abductions by rebel fighters of U.N. peacekeepers, who have monitored a narrow zone of separation between Syrian and Israeli troops since 1974.
The abductions have led the Philippines government to say it is considering withdrawing its troops from the UNDOF observer mission. Austria, the other main troop contributor, is concerned that French and British calls to drop an EU arms embargo on Syrian rebels would render its continued presence untenable.
Adding to the sense of alert, the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said two weeks ago it was forming combat units to try to recapture the Golan, after Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah said they would support such operations.
The announcement followed Israeli air strikes near Damascus against suspected missiles stocks destined for Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
Syria’s military command said Tuesday’s incident showed that Israel was supporting the anti-Assad rebels and aimed “to raise their morale which collapsed after the tough blows struck by our noble armed forces ... especially in Qusair.”
Syria’s army, backed by Hezbollah, has launched an offensive to capture the central town of Qusair, which has been in rebel hands for most of the two-year uprising which has now killed more than 80,000 people, according to the United Nations.
“The blatant Zionist aggression confirms that any violation, or attempted violation of the country’s sovereignty will be met with immediate and firm retaliation,” it said.
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Robin Pomeroy