Austria to Pull UN Peacekeepers From Golan After Clashes

Austria is pulling its United Nations peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights, saying that the risk to its soldiers had become “unacceptable” after clashes in the area between Syrian government forces and rebels.

Austria, the biggest provider of troops to the UN mission that’s been enforcing a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, will withdraw its soldiers over the next two to four weeks, Defense Minister Gerald Klug told reporters today in Vienna. Various rebel groups were operating in the demilitarized zone in recent weeks and Syria’s government was no longer able to ensure peacekeepers safety, he said.

“From a military standpoint, the fighting has reached a new level in the last weeks,” Klug said. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said in a statement that the risk to Austrian soldiers was “uncontrollable and immediate” and had gone to “an unacceptable level.”

Austria’s withdrawal will weaken the peacekeeping mission as it has the biggest contingent and is the only country to have provided troops constantly since the Golan Heights mission began in 1974. Croatian soldiers quit earlier this year.

‘Mission Backbone’

“Austria has been a backbone of the mission and their withdrawal will impact the mission’s operational capacity,” said Josephine Guerrero, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping forces. The UN contingent had 911 troops as of May 25, of which 377 were from Austria, 193 from India and 341 from the Philippines, according to Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The UN is talking to other countries about possible replacements, he said.

Ban was informed by Spindelegger about the withdrawal, Nesirky said. “The Secretary-General is concerned about the potential consequences of such a withdrawal on the peacekeeping operation, forces, on regional security,” Nesirky said.

Rebels took control of the Syrian side of a Golan Heights crossing point with Israel and units of the Syrian army later retook the border crossing, the Austrian Defence Ministry said. The Israeli army is on heightened alert in the Golan Heights after a mortar from Syria fell on the Israeli-held side, said an Israeli military official who declined to be identified in accord with army policy.

Israel “regrets this decision and hopes that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

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