JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel shelled Syrian fighters after gunfire from their civil war spilled over to the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, the military said Sunday, as the conflict appeared to inch closer to the Jewish state.
The civil war in Syria has renewed tensions in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Despite constant hostility between the two countries, Syria has been careful to keep the border quiet since the 1973 Mideast war.
In recent days, Israeli troops have fired into Syria twice before, responding to what appeared to be stray mortar shells exploding in Israel-held territory. On Sunday, an Israeli military spokesman said soldiers fired artillery toward the source of gunfire late Saturday night.
Speaking on condition of anonymity according to protocol, the spokesman said the military identified a hit. He did not know if the targets were Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad or forces loyal to him.
Syrian shells have exploded inside the Israel-held Golan Heights several times in recent weeks, damaging apple orchards, sparking fires and spreading some panic but causing no injuries.
Though the two nations have been bitter enemies, Israel is concerned that if the Assad regime is toppled, Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
While it is widely believed that Assad does not want to pick a fight with Israel, some in Israel warn that if his situation becomes desperate, the embattled Syrian leader might try to draw Israel into the fighting as a distraction.
More than 36,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Fighting has raged nationwide over the weekend, killing at least 108 people on Saturday alone, according to activists.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters clashed with troops around rebellious Damascus suburbs. The military repeatedly shelled them with artillery.
Heavy fighting was also reported in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a major front in the civil war since the summer. Clashes have been particularly fierce around an army base known as Base 46 in Aleppo province, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory's head. He said rebel units ousted regime troops from parts of the installation on Sunday.
Clashes were also in progress in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, where the rebels took control of the Hamdan airport on Saturday.
The airport, near the town of al-Boukamal along the border with Iraq, has been turned into a military base. Rebels have been making advances in the town for weeks, seizing control of the military security building and a checkpoint at the edge of al-Boukamal earlier this week.
The rebels have captured swaths of land and several strategic installations, particularly along the border with Turkey, but they are outgunned by the regime in battles to hold on to them. The Syrian military has relied on air power to reverse the rebel gains.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned that providing opposition groups with heavy arms could put the entire region at risk of "organized terrorism." He was responding to a move in Europe to cancel an arms embargo.
He said that arming Assad's opponents, as Damascus accuses Qatar and Saudi Arabia of doing, violates international law and principles of nonintervention in domestic affairs.
"Unfortunately, now some reports have been published saying some sides are intending to send semi-heavy and heavy arms for the opposition groups openly," Salehi said at a conference to reconcile Syria's government with some Syria-based opposition factions which are tolerated by the regime.
Iran has backed Assad in the conflict. Iran, Russia and China are Syria's main allies.
The conference is seen as a response to last week's meeting in Qatar, where opposition groups formed an umbrella coalition against Assad.
So far, France is the only Western country to recognize the Doha-formed Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. Other EU nations and the United States and have said they prefer to wait to see whether the coalition represents the variety of people in Syria before they recognize it.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.