Austria began withdrawing their peacekeepers from Syrian Golan Heights
Because of the escalating encounters between Syrian rebels & gov’t forces, which left 2 UN soldiers wounded last week, Austria decided to pull out of the region and entered the protection of Israel.
Austrian troops made up the biggest contingent in the 1,000-strong UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
By Reuters & Israel Hayom Staff
Austria has begun withdrawing peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, winding down a four-decade mission due to spillover fighting from the Syrian civil war, the Austrian Defense Ministry said.
Austrian U.N. peacekeepers withdrawing from Syria carry their belongings as they cross border between Israel and Syria at Quneitra on Wednesday – Photo: AP
A Reuters journalist stationed in the Golan Heights said Austrian troops had already moved from the Quneitra crossing point to a United Nations base inside the Israeli-held part of the heights on Tuesday.
“The first 60 to 80 soldiers will land in Vienna tomorrow afternoon, so you can already see the withdrawal on site,” Defense Ministry spokesman Andreas Strobl told Reuters in Vienna.
The Austrians have patrolled the buffer zone between Israel and Syria as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force since it was set up in 1974.
Austria said last week it would pull out after escalating clashes between Syrian rebels and government forces sent its soldiers running for cover.
Two soldiers were wounded last week after Syrian rebels briefly captured a border post, only to be subsequently driven out by government troops.
Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Austria would negotiate with the U.N. an orderly handover to the next contingent, “if there is one,” but reserved the right to stick to its timetable for a full exit within four weeks.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York that 67 Austrian troops would leave the Golan Heights on Wednesday as part of a planned troop rotation and would not be replaced by additional Austrian troops.
“The Department of Peacekeeping Operations is in continuing discussions with the government of Austria about the timetable for withdrawing the remaining 310 troops in the observer force to allow for a smooth transition with replacements,” he said.
Nesirky said talks continued with other countries about possible replacements for the Austrian troops. He said about 170 Fijian troops would deploy later this month to replace Croatian troops, who have already withdrawn from UNDOF.
Russia has offered to replace Austria in the Golan Heights, but the United Nations turned down the offer because the agreement with Israel and Syria precludes permanent members of the U.N. Security Council from taking part.
Chancellor Werner Faymann defended neutral Austria’s decision to withdraw from Golan, where its roughly 380 soldiers make up the largest contingent in the 1,000-strong force.
The Quneitra Crossing between Syria and the Israeli Golan Heights – Photo AP
“We never could have and would never have wanted to take on a military mission to mediate or intervene between the opposition rebels and governmental troops,” he told reporters after the government’s weekly cabinet meeting.
“We took over a different mandate, which was appropriate for a neutral country.”
He denied that Austria, which also has peacekeeping troops in hot spots including Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia, would suffer in international stature from the move.
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