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UN peacekeepers pulled over Syria strife

BEIRUT -- Austria announced it is withdrawing 377 UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights after Syrian rebels briefly overran a crossing point near the border with Israel Thursday, a development that has deepened concerns the civil war is spreading to neighboring countries.

Fighting between president Bashar Assad's forces and mainly Sunni rebels has already spilled over Syria's borders into Turkey and Lebanon, where factions that support opposing sides have frequently clashed. From the Israeli side of the Golan, tanks and armored vehicles could be seen from about a half-mile away in the Syrian-controlled part of the territory. Thick smoke and flames rose from the area and a large fire raged.

Also Thursday, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri tapped into the deepening Sunni-Shia rift stemming from the conflict, calling on Sunnis everywhere to devote their lives, money and expertise to overthrow the regime, set up Islamic rule in Syria and prevent a U.S.-allied government from taking over after Assad, whose regime is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot group of Shia Islam.

Highlighting the growing tension in the region, Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh warned the Syrian ambassador there to stop criticizing his host country or risk expulsion. Syrian ambassador Bahjat Suleiman is an ardent critic of Jordan's policies toward his country, accusing it of siding with anti-Assad forces.

Austrian officials said the fighting over the border position in the Golan, a demilitarized area in the plateau captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, made it necessary to withdraw their troops. -- AP

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