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Syrian tanks in Golan; Austria withdraws peacekeeping forces

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In wake of ongoing battles in the Golan Heights, Austria has announced it is withdrawing its forces from the UNDOF peacekeeping force active in the region. During the battles, a Filipino peacekeeper was wounded.

A day after losing control of Qusair, an important town close to the Lebanese border, rebels tried to grab back the initiative with an assault on Quneitra – the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights patrolled by the United Nations\’ peacekeeping force and connecting Israel to Syria.

For the first time since the start of the uprising in March 2011, the rebels briefly took control of the area, sending UN peacekeepers scurrying to their bunkers.

The rarely used Quneitra crossing is the only transit point between Syrian and Israeli disengagement lines set in 1974 and Thursday\’s battle will further heighten concerns in Israel about the worsening security environment.

Israel\’s military picked up two wounded Syrians after the clashes on the Golan Heights and transferred them to hospital for treatment, a military spokeswoman said.

Additional Israeli sources said Syrian forces wrested back the site after fierce fighting with rebels. However it should be noted that throughout the day conflicting reports regarding the fighting\’s outcome were registered.

Because of the presence of tanks and heavy artillery in the Golan, Israel has lodged a complaint with the UN in what it claims is a violation of the two countries\’ armistice agreement.

The IDF has instructed farmers from the region to avoid the area. Alex Kodish, the agricultural manager for Ein Zivan, an Israeli community only 100 meters from the border, transferred his workers to the orchard farthest away from the border.

"We got away from the border fence so as not to put ourselves in danger, and beside that we\’re business as usual," he said, adding that "I heard explosions during the morning and that is still going on. I also saw explosions on the other (Syrian) side of the border."

Austria said it would withdraw its 380 peacekeepers from the 1,000-strong UN monitoring force because of the fighting, significantly weakening the UN Disengagement Observer Force\’s (UNDOF) ability to act in the region.

"Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said in a joint statement.

"This morning\’s developments show that a further delay (in pulling out soldiers) is no longer justifiable," the Austrian statement said.

Austria\’s defense ministry was in contact with the United Nations\’ department of peacekeeping operations "to create the conditions for an orderly withdrawal of Austrian peacekeepers", it added.

Before the Austrian announcement, the Golan peace-force was dealt another blow when a Filipino peacekeeper was wounded during the fighting between government and rebel forces.

The soldier suffered a leg injury from an artillery or mortar shell that landed at Camp Ziouni, a logistics base for the UNDOF, said Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala.

The soldier, one of the more than 300 Filipino peacekeepers, was in stable condition, Zagala said.

It was unclear whether the shell came from the government or rebel side, however it is clear the incident highlights the vulnerability of peacekeepers in the Syrian conflict.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is meant to police the peace but has been largely ineffectual during the civil war. Israel however is keen to maintain an international presence in the area and has urged countries contributing to the force not to quit, despite the dangers.

The Syrian side of the crossing is only 70 meters from the IDF\’s position, and the only thing that stands – or stood – between them was the UNDOF position. In light of the conflict, during the previous year, the IDF has reinforced its buffer zone with Syria.

The crossing is one of the sole representatives of governmental authority in the Syrian Golan, and hence, symbolically, unlike the nearby town bearing the same name, it is such a vied for target.

The crossing is currently closed to both journalists and citizens.

In the past, Israel has allowed only a handful of Arabs and Druze residents of formerly Syrian communities – currently under Israel sovereignty – to use the crossing for studies in Damascus, religious purposes or the occasional humanitarian crossing of doctors.

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