BEIRUT

Middle East

2 Austrian soldiers wounded in Damascus shooting

Syrian citizens walk in a destroyed street that was attacked on Wednesday by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria, Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution)

VIENNA: Two Austrian soldiers stationed with the UN force on the Golan Heights were shot and wounded in Syria while their convoy was travelling to Damascus airport on Thursday, their defence ministry said.

The two troops, whose lives were not in danger, were part of the Austrian contingent of the United Nations Disengagement Observers Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights and were travelling to Damascus airport to fly back to Austria after their tour of duty, the ministry said.

Two more soldiers in the Austrian convoy were lightly injured by fragments, it added.

It was unclear whether the shooters were Syrian government forces or rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's regime, according to a ministry spokesman.

The United Nations confirmed the incident, saying it had happened "in an area of Damascus where military operations between the Syrian armed forces and armed members of the opposition were taking place."

"The Secretary General remains deeply concerned about the evolution of the conflict in Syria," the statement from Ban Ki-moon's spokesman said.

"As today's incident illustrates, the ongoing clashes between the Syrian armed forces and the armed members of the opposition affect UNDOF's operations and pose a serious risk to United Nations personnel on the ground.

"Safety and security of United Nations personnel is of the highest priority for the United Nations," the statement added.

One soldier was shot in the arm and the other in the shoulder, but both were quickly treated by an accompanying doctor and the convoy then arrived at the airport.

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger and Defence Minister Norbert Darabos condemned the attack, adding they would file a loud protest with the UN Security Council.

"That Austrian peacekeepers are shot at must be condemned in the strongest terms and demands appropriate consequences," they said in a joint statement.

"The Austrian government will do everything it can, along with the UN, to make sure this incident is resolved clearly."

Spindelegger had instructed the Austrian embassy in Damascus to file a protest with the Syrian government, and the Syrian ambassador in Vienna was to be summoned to the foreign ministry on Thursday to give an explanation.

"Syria is responsible for the safety of our UNDOF soldiers and must ensure that they can fulfil their international mandate," Spindelegger said.

In Syria, state television, quoting a foreign ministry source, blamed the shootings on rebels.

"At around 12 noon (1000 GMT), and while a terrorist armed group was firing towards an army post in the area of Aqraba, the shots hit a vehicle of UNDOF, leading to the injury of two members of those forces," it said.

Some 170 Austrian UN troops were at Damascus airport Thursday -- 100 of them waiting to be flown out as part of their regular six-month rotation, 70 others on their way to the Golan Heights, according to the defence ministry.

The situation there was quiet at the moment, it said.

Syrian troops mounted an assault on rebels near Damascus on Thursday, closing off the road to the airport before later securing it, authorities said, amid a widespread telecommunications outage.

Austria contributes some 370 soldiers to UNDOF on the Golan Heights, near Syria's border with Israel. The situation in that region was currently calm, the defence ministry said.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and annexed it in 1981, in a move never recognised by the international community. The Security Council established UNDOF in 1974 to enforce a ceasefire between Israeli and Syrian forces.

 

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