Austria’s government says it is withdrawing the country’s 377 UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights for safety reasons after the Syrian conflict briefly spilled over to an area near their position.
Vienna’s decision came after hours of fierce fighting between pro-regime and opposition forces at Quneitra, the only crossing between Syria and Israel, which is manned by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF. Austria’s contingent with the UN patrols the ceasefire zone between Israeli and Syrian territory on the Golan Heights.
Chancellor Werner Fayman and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said in a statement that “the development… has shown that further waiting can no longer be justified.”
Only India and the Philippines will now have forces in UNDOF. Israel has become progressively more worried about the collapse of the peacekeeping force as the Syrian civil war intensified, and countries began to withdraw their troops. The departure of the Austrian contingent, UNDOF’s largest, could spell the demise of the force.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it regretted Vienna’s move.
“While appreciating Austria’s longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” the ministry. “Israel expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974), in virtue of which UNDOF has been established.”
Rebels briefly overran a border position near the destroyed city of Quneitra early Thursday before Syrian government troops retook it. The peacekeepers receive most of their supplies through that position from Israel.
Austria’s soldiers make up the largest contingent of the approximately 900 UN peacekeepers posted to the Golan Heights separating Syria and Israel.
Quneitra was captured by the Syrian rebels early Thursday, according to a rebel spokesman, who said his organization inflicted “heavy losses” on government troops holding the crossing and were able to destroy four tanks.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad began a counterattack around noon, Al Arabiya reported, leading to a renewed round of fighting. Syrian state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV denied that the rebels controlled the crossing point. It said the Syrian army is pursuing “terrorists” in the Golan.
Syrian troops later claimed they had taken control of the crossing, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it still was not clear who controlled the site.
A military source told The Times of Israel that the “situation is still very fluid. Rebels are fighting in both the town [of Quneitra] and the border crossing.”
Earlier Thursday, an Austrian defense ministry official confirmed to the Associated Press that rebel troops captured the crossing point and that UN forces have withdrawn from the area, but said that none of the peacekeepers was harmed.
Austria’s decision to pull out follows similar steps by Japan and Croatia earlier in the year.
The Philippines and India also have peacekeeping forces posted to the Golan. Philippine soldiers have been kidnapped by rebels several times and Manila recently said it was considering withdrawing its troops as well.
Earlier on Thursday, the Philippine military said one of its peacekeepers was wounded during the fighting.
The soldier suffered a leg injury from an artillery or mortar shell that landed at Camp Ziouni, a logistics base for the UN force. He was in stable condition.
Gavriel Fiske contributed to this report.