Austria fears for its Golan observers, wants Syria arms ban kept

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 15, 2013 6:37 AM
Austria fears for its Golan observers, wants Syria arms ban kept

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria, fearing for the safety of its peacekeepers on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, said on Friday it opposed a French push to lift a European Union ban on arming Syrian rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad.

Austrian Defence Minister Gerald Klug also demanded United Nations guarantees that the observers can be rotated and get supplies via Syria, amid growing concerns about their security.

He spoke a day after French President Francois Hollande said Paris and London would urge EU governments on Friday to increase help to Assad's opponents after a two-year-old uprising.

Other EU governments, including Germany, have resisted any scrapping of the arms embargo, saying this would fuel violence, especially if Western-supplied arms reached militant Islamists.

"One can never rule out whose hands more weapons will end up in, and that's why I am against this suggestion," Klug, who took office on Monday, told national broadcaster ORF.

The vulnerability of the 1,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force on the Golan was highlighted last week when Syrian rebels detained 21 unarmed observers, all Filipinos, for three days.

The U.N. troops have since scaled back patrols, diplomats told Reuters on Thursday.

Diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York have expressed concern over the future of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), whose mission began in 1974. Austria, the only participating EU state, contributes 375 peacekeepers to UNDOF.

Asked whether there were evacuation plans for the Austrians, Klug called this a "very sensitive subject".

"I demand from the U.N. that we get assurances that supplies and troop rotations are possible via Syria. In addition we demand that the contingent that is being withdrawn by Croatia is replenished by the U.N.," he said.

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Japan announced its withdrawal from UNDOF three months ago due to the violence in Syria. Croatia said last month it would also pull out its troops as a precaution after reports, which it denied, that Croatian arms had been shipped to Syrian rebels.

Two Austrian peacekeepers were wounded in November when their convoy came under fire near Damascus airport.

Once the Croatians leave, UNDOF will have contingents only from Austria, India and the Philippines. A senior Western diplomat has said Manila is considering pulling its troops out.

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Alistair Lyon)