Iraq closes border, sends reinforcements after Syria clashes

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The government closed a border crossing with Syria and sent in military reinforcements after cross-border fire killed an Iraqi soldier, the defense ministry’s spokesman said on Thursday.

Mohammed al-Askari told AFP that the Yaarubiyeh crossing between eastern Syrian and the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, near where Syrian regime forces and rebels battled on Saturday, had been closed.

“Reinforcements were sent after ... battles near the border post,” Askari said, adding that the area was also under aerial surveillance.

An Iraqi soldier was killed and three people including a soldier were wounded inside Iraqi territory on Saturday during clashes on the Syrian side of the border, Askari said.

Two days later, 48 Syrian soldiers who crossed into north Iraq for medical treatment were killed in an ambush in Iraq’s western Anbar province, as they were being returned to Syria.

Nine Iraqi guards also died in the attack, the defense ministry said.

Baghdad has pointedly avoided calling for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is locked in a bloody civil war with rebels opposed to his regime. It has instead urged an end to violence by all parties.

U.N. peacekeepers as hostages

Meanwhile, in another spillover of the Syrian conflict, Syrian rebels kept 21 U.N. peacekeepers hostage on the Golan Heights on Thursday despite world condemnation.

However, activist, Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” rebel brigade as saying the convoy of peacekeepers were being held as “guests” in the village of Jamla, about one mile (kilometer) from a ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“He said they will not be harmed. But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area,” Abdelrahmansaid after speaking to the rebel spokesman on Thursday morning.

Syrian activists say new clashes have erupted between government troops and rebels near the area.

Diplomats scrambled to secure the release of the 21 Filipinos serving with the four-decade-old U.N. peace mission on the strategic plateau, as concern mounted that their seizure might prompt more governments to withdraw their contingents.

Israel, which has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate any spillover onto the Golan, said it feared the hostage-taking might lead to the already depleted force being wound up altogether.

For months, Israel has retaliated against stray fire onto its side of the armistice line, whether from Damascus troops or from the rebels, who are also hostile to its occupation of the Syrian territory.