Friday, 12 April 2013

Austrian Golan peacekeepers, fearing safety, to assess presence

UN peacekeepers to reassess remaining in region on daily basis, depending on level of risk to troops, in light of escalating Syrian war; Israel fears attacks if peacekeepers leave

Austrian UN peacekeepers, fearing their safety due to fighting in Syria, will assess on a daily basis if they can stay to monitor a truce between Israel and Syria, Austria's foreign minister said on Friday.

Israel is anxious for the peacekeepers to remain, worried that the Golan will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by Islamist militants fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"We have decided, as Austrians, to stay as long as we can, this is our mandate ... (but) we have to decide every day if it's possible," Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.

"We will do so as long as is possible," he told Reuters after visiting Austria's UN contingent on the Golan Heights, where he was briefed about the situation.

In the past three months, Japan and Croatia have both said they were withdrawing their troops from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

Austrians account for around 380 of the 1,000-strong mission and should Vienna quit the operation, it was unclear if any other nation would be ready to step into the breach.

Last month, Syrian rebels held 21 Filipino peacekeepers for three days, prompting the force to scale back on patrols. Two Austrian peacekeepers were wounded in November when their convoy came under fire near Damascus airport.

Israeli military sources have said they fear UNDOF will not hold up under the insurgency in the Golan, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and not recognised internationally.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Spindelegger on Thursday and outlined the Jewish state's concerns over the disintegration of power in Syria.

The Israel-Syria frontier was quiet for decades but recent battles between Assad loyalists and rebels have raged in villages on the Syrian foothills of the Golan, with mortar shells and gunfire straying into Israeli-occupied land.

Israel has returned fire in some of those incidents and to try to secure the border further it is building a new, 5-metre (16 feet) tall fence next to the older, partly rundown barrier that runs along the 70 km (45 mile) front.,7340,L-4367328,00.html

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