Putin offers Russian troops as Golan Heights peacekeepers to replace Austrian forces

 

Jerusalem

Vladimir Putin has offered to send Russian troops to act as peacekeepers in the Golan Heights after Austria said it would withdraw its forces following violent clashes in the area earlier this week.

The only border crossing between Israel and Syria was the scene of heavy fighting yesterday between regular Syrian soldiers and rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. The violence prompted Austria to announce that it would withdraw its 300 or so soldiers from the 1,100-strong UN peacekeeping unit, the Disengagement Observer Force.

"We could replace the leaving Austrian contingent in this region on the border between Israeli troops and the Syrian army," Mr Putin told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Israel - which is concerned that the Syrian conflict could seep across its border, and which has significantly increased the number of its own military in the area - was angered by the Austrian decision and demanded that the UN replace the departing troops.

The Russian offer may be viewed as a double-edged sword in Israel, however. Moscow has remained a steadfast supporter of the Assad government throughout the two-year civil war, despite many other countries insisting that the Syrian president's cannot stay in office. There has also been anger in the Jewish state about Russian insistence that it will supply Damascus with the sophisticated S300 missiles, which Israel fears could fall into the hands of groups such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist militant organisation, which is fighting on behalf of the Syrian government.

Despite reports that the missiles have already arrived in Syria, it is believed that they are still to be delivered. Nonetheless, Israeli defence officials have insisted in recent weeks that they have the right to act militarily to prevent the S300s from finding their way to Hezbollah and other militant groups.

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