- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 8 (UPI) — Syria Wednesday accused Israel of violating a 1974 disengagement accord and killing a civilian in the demilitarized zone separating the two countries.

Syria responded to the "unjustified provocation" and fired back. The exchange was the first in 29 years.

A Syrian military spokesman said three Syrians, including two policemen wearing jogging suits, were in the demilitarized zone when they were fired at from the Israeli side.

The official Syrian News Agency quoted the spokesman as saying the three were "heading to a stream in an area where the Rakkad Valley and the Yarmuk River meet with the aim of getting drinking water."

He said the Israeli gunfire killed one, while another disappeared. He did not say what happened to the third man.

The Israeli army spokesman said the incident occurred at noon when an elite infantry unit was on a foot patrol in the area and encountered the Syrians who crossed into its territory in the southern Golan Heights.

"The (Syrian) squad opened fire at the soldiers," but inflicted no casualties, the spokesman said. The soldiers returned fire and killed one of the Syrians.

A second man, who was not armed, was caught and taken for interrogation that established both were Syrian soldiers in civilian dress, the army spokesman said.

Israel did not mention the third man but said the dead body was left in the field and it planned to arrange for the Syrians to pick it up.

The Syrian spokesman said a Syrian patrol, close to the area, returned fire.

"Firing at Syrian citizens in the demilitarized zone constitutes a violation of the disengagement accord and an unjustified provocation," the spokesman said, adding investigations were under way to "adopt the adequate measures."

The shooting continued intermittently for an hour and the Israeli army spokesman said the Israelis did not return fire.

The Israelis insisted the incident occurred on their side of the border.

The area, close to the point where the Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders meet, is covered with bushes and the demilitarized zone there is exceptionally narrow. Israeli maps show that in that section, the Rakkad River is on the Israeli side of the line.

Syria and Israel signed a disengagement accord in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1974 at the end of their war of attrition that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Since then, their border has remained calm and no shooting has been reported. The calm even prompted late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to declare that late Syrian President Hafez Assad respected his promises.

The only incident in the demilitarized occurred in the mid-1990s when two U.N. peacekeeping soldiers were killed in what was then described as an isolated incident.

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(With additional reporting by Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv, Israel)

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