Austrian troops stationed in the Golan Heights began leaving their positions on the border between Israel and Syria Tuesday, marking the retreat of the largest contingent of the UN’s nearly 1,000-strong peacekeeping force on the newly volatile border.
The Reuters news agency reported that troops left a post at the Syrian border town of Quneitra and moved to a base inside Israeli territory.
Austria made the decision to pull its 380 soldiers last week after Quneitra saw heavy fighting between rebels and troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad, with opposition forces at one point taking control of their only crossing between Israel and Syria.
The move put the future of the peacekeeping force, in place since 1974 to act as a buffer between Syria and Israel, in jeopardy. On Tuesday, the Philippines, one of two countries with troops still patrolling the buffer zone, said it was considering retreating as well.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he wants better protection and a robust mandate for his country’s UN contingent, numbering 342, in the Golan Heights if he decides to keep them there.
On Monday, an Austrian Defense Ministry official said that the troop pullout would begin Wednesday and that the first contingent to return home will be support staff, meaning the observation posts normally staffed by Austrian troops will continue to be manned for now.
“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.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said his country would discuss an orderly handover to the next contingent, “if there is one,” with the United Nations. Austria is planning a full exit within four weeks.
“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,” Chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters after the government’s weekly cabinet meeting.
“We took over a different mandate, which was appropriate for a neutral country.”
Croatia withdrew its forces in March amid fears its troops would be targeted.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to send Russian troops to the Golan Heights to replace the Austrians, an offer quickly turned down because the disengagement agreement and accompanying protocol do not allow the participation of troops from a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
AP contributed to this report.