Austria says peacekeepers to stay on Golan for now

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VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria retracted a threat to pull 380 peacekeepers from the U.N. buffer zone between Syria and Israel, saying on Tuesday that only Britain and France – not the whole European Union – were ready to arm Syrian rebels.

Vienna had led efforts to extend an EU arms embargo on Syria, arguing that sending more weapons to the region would only fan the fighting, dash hopes for a peace deal and make Austrian peacekeeping troops potential targets for retribution.

Attempts to renew the arms ban on Syria failed on Monday, leaving Britain and France free to supply weapons to rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad from August.

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said it had been crucial to avoid an EU policy U-turn that for the first time would allow arms shipments to one side in a conflict.

“There is no EU authorization for arms deliveries, and this is absolutely decisive. No one can say that we as Europeans wanted the opposition to get arms deliveries from member states,” he told reporters after a cabinet meeting, noting any countries that sent arms would do so on their own initiative.

This relieved pressure on Vienna to withdraw its soldiers from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where they make up the bulk of a U.N. mission monitoring an Israeli-Syrian ceasefire.

Their exit after four decades keeping the peace since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war would leave a huge hole in the already troubled 1,000-strong United Nations force separating the armies of two countries still formally at war.

“We don’t have the urgent situation of having to pull out tomorrow,” Spindelegger said, adding that Austria would continue to review security conditions with the United Nations.

He said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “is completely on our side and says we don’t need more weapons in Syria”.

(Reporting by Michael Shields- Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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