The defense ministry in Vienna, Austria, said on Thursday evening that two Austrian soldiers stationed with the UN force on the Golan Heights were shot and wounded in Syria while their convoy was travelling to the Damascus airport.
The pair, 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, according to AFP.
The two soldiers were flown by helicopter to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa. The hospital said on Thursday night that one of the soldiers was moderately wounded by a bullet to the chest. The other soldier was in light condition, said the hospital.
It was unclear whether they were shot by Syrian government forces or rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a defense ministry spokesman in Vienna told AFP.
“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.
Austria”s Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger and Defense 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 quoted by AFP.
“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.
The Syrian ambassador in Vienna was also summoned to the foreign ministry on Thursday to give an explanation and he expressed regret over the incident, according to a ministry statement. This was the first such shooting of UN troops to take place in Syria, according to Austrian authorities.
In Syria, state television, quoting a foreign ministry source, blamed the shootings on rebels.
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 defense ministry said.
There have been several incidents of the civil war in Syria spilling over into the Golan Heights recently. The last two incidents occurred this past Sunday, as residents of the religious Zionist town of Alonei Habashan, which is less than a kilometer from the border, reported that they heard explosions near the town, perhaps a result of a mortar shell that had been fired from Syria.
In a second incident on Sunday night, an IDF vehicle was hit by bullets fired from Syrian territory into Israel during the fighting between the sides. There were no injuries or damage.
Last week, as IDF troops were patrolling along the border fence with Syria, their jeep was hit with some bullets that were fired from the Syrian side of the border. No one was hurt, but the IDF acted in accordance with the new rules of engagement and responded shortly thereafter with artillery fire at a building on the other side of the border.
The IDF changed the rules of engagement along the Syrian border after the fighting in Syria spilled over into Israel more than once.