BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels captured one village and parts of others on the edge of the Golan Heights Thursday as fighting closed in on the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed, activists and officials said.
If the rebels take over the region, it will bring radical Islamic militants to a front-line with Israeli troops and give them a potential staging ground for attack on the Jewish state. One of the rebel groups involved in the fighting, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, is an Islamic militant group.
One of the worst-case scenarios for Syria's 2-year-old civil war is that it could draw in neighboring countries such as Israel or Lebanon. Israel has said its policy is not to get involved in the Syrian civil war, but it has retaliated for sporadic Syrian fire that spilled into Israeli communities on the Golan Heights.
There have also been clashes with Turkey, Syria's neighbor to the north. And Israel recently bombed targets inside Syria said to include a weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon, a key ally of the regime in Damascus and an arch foe of Israel.
The battles near the town of Quneitra in southwest Syria sent many residents fleeing, including dozens who crossed into neighboring Lebanon. The fighting in the sensitive area began Wednesday near the cease-fire line between Syrian and Israeli troops.
Syrian rebels are made of dozens of groups including the powerful, al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration labels a terrorist organization. Syrian TV said Thursday that Syrian forces "restored peace" to Khan Arnabeh and the Tilal al-Ahmar villages in Quneitra province "after eradicating large numbers of Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists," the term used by the regime to refer to the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier that rebels had seized control of Khan Arnabeh and parts of villages a few kilometers (miles) from the cease-fire line with Israel after fierce fighting with regime forces.
It reported that Syrian warplanes and artillery bombarded the villages of Tseel, Shajara, Jamlah and Nafea. Jamlah is where rebels captured earlier this month 21 U.N. peacekeepers and held them for four days before setting them free.
The Local Coordination Committees, another anti-regime activist group, reported heavy fighting in the nearby village of Sahm al-Golan and said rebels are attacking an army post.
The Observatory said seven people, including three children, were killed Wednesday by government shelling of villages in the area.
An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the past two years of conflict in Syria, according to the United Nations.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the fighting around the town of Arnabeh intensified Thursday, a day after rebels captured it. He added that the rebels captured two nearby army posts.
In Lebanon, security officials said 150 people, mostly women and children, walked for six hours in rugged mountains covered with snow to reach safety in the Lebanese border town of Chebaa.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the Syrians fled from the town of Beit Jan, near the Golan Heights.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a Islamic militant rebel group active in southern Syria, said in a statement on its Facebook page that its fighters stormed an army post between the villages of Sahm al-Golan and Shajara.
Activists on Facebook pages affiliated with rebels in Quneitra announced the start of the operation to "break the siege on Quneitra and Damascus' western suburbs."
The Golan front has been mostly quiet since 1974, a year after Syria and Israel fought a war during which Damascus tried to retake the plateau, and briefly captured Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-occupied section of the Golan.
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, known as UNDOF, was established in May 1974 by a U.N. Security Council resolution following the agreed disengagement of the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights.
Since then, UNDOF has remained in the area that the Israelis later pulled out from, which includes Quneitra. The U.N. forces maintain the cease-fire between the Israelis and Syrians and supervise the implementation of the disengagement agreement.
In the past months, Syrian shells exploded inside the Israel-occupied Golan several times damaging apple orchards, sparking fires and spreading panic but causing no injuries.
In early November, three Syrian tanks entered the Golan demilitarized zone, and in a separate incident an Israeli patrol vehicle was peppered with bullets fired from Syria. No one was hurt in the incident and the Israeli military deemed it accidental.
The fighting moved closer to Israel as President Barack Obama was visiting the country for the first time since taking office more than four years ago.
In a new sign of distress for Syria's war-battered economy, the currency hit a record low of 118 pounds to the dollar compared to 47 before the crisis began.
In the capital of Damascus, exchange shops were paying 108 pounds to the dollar on Thursday, compared to 118 on Wednesday.
The fall of the pound came after members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition elected Ghassan Hitto on Tuesday to head an interim administration they hope will provide an alternative to Assad's regime and help coordinate the fight against his forces.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi assured the Syrian people that the government has a strategic reserve of foreign currency.
He did not give a figure, but the government is believed to have spent much of its $17 billion in foreign currency reserves it held when the crisis began to prevent the pound from crashing.
The central bank governor was quoted by state media as saying that the bank will resume the sale of foreign currency to importers as of next week. He said the funding of non-commercial operations is ongoing including providing the needs of citizens who want to travel.
He blamed the fall of the pound on speculators.
Also Thursday, state-run TV in Damascus said authorities have handed over to Beirut a Lebanese fighter captured inside Syria in an ambush by government troops.
Hassane Serour had been in held in Syria since Nov. 30, when a group of Lebanese fighters were ambushed by Syrian troops shortly after crossing the border to join the rebels.
Lebanese officials said at the time that 17 gunmen were killed in the ambush.
Lebanon is sharply split along sectarian lines, and Syria's civil war has exacerbated those divisions among supporters and opponents of Assad.
The divisions are a legacy of the nearly three decades when Damascus all but ruled Lebanon until withdrawing troops in 2005.