UNITED NATIONS —
Austria says it is withdrawing its troops from the increasingly dangerous U.N. Observer Mission in the Golan Heights, as Syrian government forces and rebels engaged in intense fighting in the area between Syria and Israel.
The U.N. mission, known by its acronym UNDOF, has been one of the most peaceful since it was created in 1974 to monitor a fragile cease-fire between Syria and Israel.
But as the Syrian conflict escalates, the area patrolled by 900 lightly-armed troops has become increasingly dangerous. In addition to some peacekeepers being caught in the crossfire of the government and armed opposition, several have been briefly abducted.
Croatia has already withdrawn its troops from the mission, leaving just the Philippines, India and Austria.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky says the Austrian foreign minister personally telephoned Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday to advise him of his government’s decision to withdraw its 377 peacekeepers - roughly one third of UNDOF’s force.
“Austria has obviously been a key component of the mission, and their withdrawal will affect the mission’s operational capacity," he said. "Peacekeeping colleagues are in discussions with them about timing of the withdrawal and also with other troop-contributing countries to provide replacement troops. Certainly, the secretary-general is concerned about the potential consequences of such a withdrawal on the peacekeeping operation and also on regional security, and in that regard he obviously regrets the decision that’s been taken.”
Austria’s decision could make India and the Philippines reconsider whether they want to keep their troops in harm’s way. In the meantime, new troop contributing countries will need to be found to replace the Austrians or the nearly 40-year-old mission’s existence could be in jeopardy.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, who heads the U.N. Security Council this month, told reporters a meeting of potential troop contributing countries would take place Thursday and the council may have a briefing from the peacekeeping department on Friday. He added that that council members consider UNDOF to be an extremely important mission and they want it to continue.