UN peacekeepers hurt in Syria Golan clashes

Austria withdraws UN troops from Golan Heights after shelling near border with Israel injures two peacekeepers.

    Two UN peacekeepers have been wounded during clashes between Syrian government forces and rebels over control of a border crossing near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

    The Austrian government decided to withdraw all 380 of its UN peacekeepers from the 900-strong UN mission area on Thursday after the border post was taken by Syrian rebels and then recaptured by government forces during a fierce battle that was still raging.

    "We no longer have freedom of movement," Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said in a joint written statement.

    "The uncontrolled and imminent danger to Austrian soldiers has reached an unacceptable level."

    Syria rebels mull next move after Qusayr fall.

    UN peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said the withdrawal would affect the operational capacity of the mission observing a decades-old ceasefire between Syria and Israel.

    "Austria has been a backbone of the mission and their withdrawal will impact the mission's operational capacity," Guerrero said.

    "We are in discussions with them about timing, and with other troop-contributing countries to provide replacement troops."

    Israel's foreign ministry issued a written statement saying it regretted Austria's decision and hoped it would not bring further escalation of violence in the region.

    Filipino peacekeeper hurt

    The decision came as UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said two peacekeepers were wounded from the fallout of heavy weapons fire in the area.

    Dwyer did not give the nationalities of the injured peacekeepers, but a written Filipino military statement said a Philippine UN peacekeeper was wounded by shrapnel on Thursday amid fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.

    "He is being treated by medics inside a shelter and is in stable and good condition," the statement said.

    Syria's official news agency SANA reported earlier that the army had repulsed a group that attempted to seize the crossing in the town of Quneitra, near Golan.

    SANA quoted an official source as saying that a large number of rebels were killed or injured in the battle.

    The fighting followed a claim by opposition fighters that they had captured the crossing.

    The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the situation inside Syria, confirmed that clashes had taken place, but said their outcome was unclear.

    Lebanon concern

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

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

    Al Jazeera's Sue Turton, reporting from Golan Heights, said that Israel was very worried by the clashes.

    "They have never seen it this close before," she said.

    There is also a growing alarm at the violent backlash now spilling over into Lebanon after Syrian government forces won control of the strategic city of Qusayr alongside their Shia allies of the Hezbollah on Wednesday.

    A gunman, a Lebanese and a Syrian were killed in Lebanon late on Wednesday during a clash with Lebanese guards near the border with Syria, the Lebanese army said.

    At least 18 rockets fired from inside Syria overnight landed in areas of Lebanon known to be home to backers of the Shia Hezbollah movement, police reported.

    The missiles struck in Baalbeck, in the district of Sharawneh. It was the first such attack on the city. A child was wounded and some property damaged.

    The rockets, believed to have been fired by Syrian rebels, came hours after Syrian jets raided areas in Arsaal, in eastern Lebanon.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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