JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel, with U.S. backing, accused Syria on Monday of orchestrating deadly confrontations on a cease-fire line between the two countries as a distraction from Damascus’s bloody crackdown on an 11-week-old revolt.
Syria said 23 people, including a woman and a child, were killed and 350 wounded on Sunday when Israeli troops fired on Palestinian protesters who surged against the fortified boundary fence on Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said live Israeli fire had caused casualties and U.N. monitors were “seeking to confirm facts”.
Russia voiced “deep concern” about the flareup and the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, while the United States said it was “deeply troubled” by attempts to breach the Golan disengagement line and urged restraint on both sides.
Washington backed Israel’s charge that by permitting the protests to take place, President Bashar al-Assad was trying to shift world attention from the security forces’ killing of at least 1,100 Syrians engaged in anti-government protests.
“This is clearly an attempt by Syria to incite these kinds of protests,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, saying Damascus hoped to divert attention from its own problems.”
“Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself,” Toner added.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “The events along the Syrian border did not erupt by chance. There is an attempt being made here to heat up the border and to try and breach our borders.”
Netanyahu, speaking to reporters at Israel’s parliament, said Israel would defend its borders and charged Syria with “an attempt here to divert international attention from what is going on inside Syria and the difficult events in Hama.”
Sunday’s protest was held to mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip where Palestinians want to establish a state.
Although Israel and Syria are technically at war, and Syria is home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s foundation, the Golan Heights had long been quiet.
That changed on May 15, when scores of flag-waving Palestinian activists flattened a fence on the demarcation line and briefly rallied inside Israeli-controlled territory.
Rattled by the breach, Israel beefed up its defences and warned that lethal force could be used. A Reuters reporter at the scene on Sunday saw Israeli sharpshooters firing at demonstrators at the fence and 10 people taken away on stretchers by comrades.
With U.S.-brokered peace efforts stalled, some Palestinians inspired by non-violent popular revolts sweeping the Arab world are trying to adopt similar tactics against Israel.
Israeli leaders said they feared such marches would recur ahead of the Palestinians’ campaign to secure recognition of their claim to statehood at the United Nations in September.
The official Syrian news agency SANA put Sunday’s death toll at 23 and quoted Health Minister Wael al-Halki as saying a woman and child were among the dead. It said 350 people suffered gunshot wounds.
The Israeli military said it believed a blast from what it said was a Syrian landmine detonated accidentally by petrol bombs thrown by protesters had caused 10 casualties. But it gave no overall figure for the dead and wounded.
Before the Golan violence, Israel rarely censured the Assad government for its domestic crackdowns. Successive Israeli governments have sought peace with Assad, seeing his government as a possible anchor for wider Israeli-Arab accommodation.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Andrew Quinn in Washington, Thomas Grove in Moscow, Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Dan Williams and Janet Lawrence