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Austrian U.N. peacekeepers begin pullout from Golan Heights

Published: Updated:

Austrian troops in the U.N. monitoring force on the Golan Heights began their withdrawal on Wednesday after Vienna announced the mission would end due to concerns over security.

AFP news agency reported that a group of 20 soldiers entered the Israeli side of the strategic plateau through the Quneitra Crossing, the only direct passage between Israel and Syria.

About 50 other soldiers of the 378-strong Austrian contingent were to be withdrawn during the day, sources on the ground told AFP.

“The first 60 to 80 soldiers will land in Vienna tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon, so you can already see the withdrawal on site,” Defense Ministry spokesman Andreas Strobl told Reuters in Vienna on Tuesday.

United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) troops left behind, most of them from Chile and India, were doubtful the tense situation will improve.

The departure of the Austrians is the latest blow to the monitoring force. There have also been several recent incidents in which Syrian rebel forces detained UNDOF monitors, signaling an escalation of violence in the Golan Heights.

“I’m alive, but the reality is there’s an escalation, and we’re stuck in the middle,” a UNDOF soldier said, in quotes cited by Israel-base Ynet News.

The soldier, who has been stationed in Syrian territory for the past six months, stressed the mandate given to the UN will have to change.

“We cannot intervene,” he said. “We report violations by the Syrians or the Israelis, that’s it. I think this must change. I only have my hands and my weapons to defend myself,” he emphasized.

The Austrians have patrolled the buffer zone between Israel and Syria as part of the UNDOF since it was set up in 1974.

The Vienna government said last week it would pull out after worsening fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces sent its soldiers running for cover.

Russia’s offer to replace peacekeepers from Austria in the Golan Heights was not accepted by the United Nations on Friday.

The UN rejected the offer due to an agreement between Israel and Syria which bars permanent members of the Security Council from the UN observer mission, Reuters news agency reported.

Russia, a longtime ally and arms supplier to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, along with the United States, Britain, France and China is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the 15-nation Security Council.