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Austria to withdraw its UN peacekeepers from Golan heights

Published: Updated:

Austria will withdraw its troops from the UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights, the government said Thursday, after Syrian rebels briefly seized a crossing on the Israel-Syria ceasefire line.

“In light of this, the defense minister said that... the Austrian army’s participation in the UNDOF mission can no longer be maintained for military reasons,” Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice-Chancellor Michael Spindelegger said in a statement.

The situation has significantly worsened in the last few weeks and “freedom of movement in the area no longer exists,” they said.

“The... threat to the Austrian soldiers has reached an unacceptable level. The events of this morning show that it is no longer justifiable to wait and see.”

They concluded: “The secured movement and supply of our troops on the Golan can no longer be guaranteed.”

Spindelegger, who is also foreign minister, has informed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of Vienna’s decision, the statement said.

The defense ministry was also in touch with the UN department of peacekeeping operations to plan an orderly withdrawal.

Details about when the withdrawal might occur were not known but a press conference was planned for 5:30 pm (1530 GMT) with Faymann, Spindelegger and Defence Minister Gerald Klug.

Neutral Austria has been part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights since its inception in 1974 and is currently one of the biggest contributors there, with some 380 troops.

Other contributors to the 1,000-strong mission include the Philippines, India, Morocco and Moldova.

Rebels fighting troops loyal to Damascus on Thursday briefly seized the only crossing along the Israel-Syria ceasefire line in the Golan Heights, before regime forces recaptured it, Israeli sources and an AFP correspondent said.

In Manila, the Filipino military said one of its peacekeepers in UNDOF was wounded in the leg by shrapnel on Thursday. In recent months, several Filipino peacekeepers have also been kidnapped by rebels.