The United Nations is urgently looking for troops to replace Austrian peacekeepers who are withdrawing from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman said Thursday.
Austria’s decision to withdraw its troops from UNDOF’s presence in the Golan Heights would affect the operational capability of the force, Martin Nesirky said, adding that the force was engaged in talks with Vienna to find a suitable time frame for evacuating its troops. UNDOF was also looking to other nations to send reinforcements to the peacekeeping mission.
Austria provided 377 of the 911 peacekeepers in the force, Nesirky said.
Ban said the continued presence of the force is essential.
Earlier Thursday, Austria’s government said it would withdraw the country’s UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights for safety reasons after the Syrian conflict briefly spilled over to an area near their position.
Ban also condemned an attack Thursday that injured two peacekeepers in the force, which monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights, according to a statement released by the UN.
The statement came after a day which saw heavy fighting between Syrian troops and opposition forces near the border town of Quneitra, with the rebels at one point taking control of the border crossing with Israel. Israel complained to the UN over the presence of Syrian tanks in the area which is in a demilitarized zone.
The UN secretary-general said the crisis in Syria is having a destabilizing impact beyond its borders and warned that any military activity in the zone separating Israeli and Syrian forces could jeopardize the long-held ceasefire.
Vienna’s decision came after hours of fierce fighting at Quneitra, including at the only crossing between Syria and Israel, which is manned by UNDOF.
Only India and the Philippines will now have forces in UNDOF. Israel has become increasingly worried about the collapse of the peacekeeping force as the Syrian civil war intensified and countries began to withdraw their troops.
The 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 stated. “Israel expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974), in virtue of which UNDOF has been established.”
Austria’s decision to pull out follows similar steps by Japan and Croatia earlier in the year.
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.
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