Austrian UNDOF troops begin Golan pullout despite UN plea for more time
WATCH: First group of 60 to 80 cross into Israeli side of border with Syria via Queneitra crossing and are expected to land in Vienna later Wednesday.
Austria's UN peacekeepers left their posts and began withdrawing from the Golan Heights on Wednesday, after fighting from the Syrian civil war threatened their positions last week.
The move came after Austria announced it would pull out its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member UN force.
Austrian troops left the Syrian side and moving to the Israeli side of the Golan on Wednesday morning at the Quneitra crossing point, which was briefly overrun by Syrian rebels last Thursday. Sixty-seven peacekeepers were said to
Austria's Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Michael Bauer said between 60 and 80 soldiers from the Golan are expected to land later in the day at Vienna airport.
The pullout deals a heavy blow to the UN forces, which have been posted in the Golan since 1974 to monitor the cease-fire. The force also includes 341 Philippine soldiers and 193 from India. Croatia withdrew in March, fearing its troops would be targeted.
The head of UN peacekeeping operations said that he had asked Austria for more time to line up replacements for the Austrian troops leaving the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
"Austria has to make us a better offer," Herve Ladsous told Austrian paper Die Presse in an interview published on Wednesday. "To be completely honest, we need more time."
Ladsous said the United Nations had approached potential contributor nations, but would need at least six to eight weeks to replace the Austrians, formerly the backbone of UNDOF. "The mission is important and will we do our utmost to keep it alive," he said.
Ladsous said no other contributing countries, which include India and the Philippines, had told him of plans to withdraw from UNDOF, which has operated on the Golan since 1974.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that the Austrian withdrawal shows his country can only rely on itself for security.
Israel has been warily watching the Syrian conflict since it broke out in March 2011, fearing the violence could spill across its borders at any time.
And although Syrian President Bashar Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel has been careful not to take sides in the war next door, partly because the Assad family has kept the border with Israel quiet for the past 40 years.
Israel is also concerned that if Assad's regime is toppled, Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, some of whom are linked to Al-Qaida, fighting against the Syrian regime.
Last Thursday, Syrian rebels overran the UN position at the border post near the abandoned town of Quneitra, holding it for several hours before Syrian government troops retook it. The international peacekeepers who maintain a 40-year-old truce receive most of their supplies through that position from Israel.
Fierce Syrian gun battles forced the peacekeepers to seek shelter in a nearby base, and the Philippine military said one of its peacekeepers was wounded when a mortar or artillery shell struck the area. UN diplomats said an Indian peacekeeper also was injured that day.
Israel and Syria agreed to creation of the UN Disengagement Observer Force after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.