News Column

Fighting Drives Peacekeepers Out of Golan Heights

June 6, 2013

Weedah Hamzah

Syrian forces Thursday regained control of a border crossing near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights after heavy fighting with rebels, prompting the Austrian government to withdraw its UN peacekeepers from the area.

Two peacekeepers were injured in the fighting, a UN spokeswoman said.

"I can confirm heavy fighting in the area and that two peacekeepers sustained minor injuries," said Josephine Guerrero, a UN Disengagement Observer Force representative.

She did not specify their nationalities, but the Austrian broadcaster ORF said the two wounded soldiers were from the Philippines and India.

A total of 380 members of the 900-strong UN mission are Austrian, meaning the pullout puts its future in question.

Vienna said it had taken the decision after the border post was captured by Syrian rebels and then reclaimed by government forces in a fierce battle.

"We no longer have freedom of movement," Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said in a joint statement. "The uncontrolled and imminent danger to Austrian soldiers has reached an unacceptable level."

Spindelegger said the entire UN mission might have to be called off as a result of the Austrian decision.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group monitoring the situation inside Syria, confirmed state-run media reports that Syrian troops had recaptured the crossing in the town of Quenitra near Golan.

Israel Radio quoted Israeli army sources as saying that Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles had entered the demilitarized zone along the border between the Syrian and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights to push back the rebels from the Quneitra crossing.

The broadcaster said Israel has filed a complaint to the United Nations over the incident.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack, saying any violence on the Syrian-Israeli border could disrupt the ceasefire, his spokesman said in New York.

Ban is also concerned that the withdrawal of the peacekeepers might endanger regional security and affect the mission's operational capacity, Martin Nesirky said.

He said the Austrian government and UN peacekeeping experts were in discussions about the timetable of the pullout while Ban was conducting talks with other members states to provide additional troops to the mission.

Israel said it regretted Austria's decision and hoped "it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region."

The fighting came a day after opposition forces suffered a severe blow by losing the strategic town of al-Kussair near the Lebanese border to government troops and allied Hezbollah fighters.

Austria's announcement also coincided with the head of Russia's intelligence service saying that about 200 Muslims from Russia are fighting for al-Qaeda in Syria.

The militants are fighting for the Caucasus Emirate under the flag of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service, said at a conference in the central Russian city of Kazan, Russian news agencies reported.

The Caucasus Emirate has been designated as a terrorist group by Russia and the United States.

"The danger is that these terrorists will return to the country they came from," Bortnikov said, adding that this risk applied to other countries from which fighters had set out to join rebel movements in Syria and Libya.

Each of the warring sides in Syria appeared at pains to show it has the upper hand in the 26-month conflict, which has claimed the lives of about 80,000 people.

The Red Cross launched a 29 million-dollar aid appeal to extend basic services to thousands of Syrian refugees across the region in one of the organization's largest non-disaster relief pleas in its history.

The European Union, meanwhile, announced it would provide an additional 400 million euros (526 million dollars) in aid for Syria and neighbouring countries.

"The situation in Syria is a stain in the world conscience. We all have a duty to act," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Syria's violence has driven 1.6 million people from the country - a figure the UN expected to nearly double before the end of the year.

dpa wh ro ok tll al raf ncs npr lns sdl beb tw lns Authors: Weedah Hamzah, Ofira Koopmans, Taylor Luck, Albert Otti and Emoke Bebiak

061847 GMT Jun 13

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Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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