Austria begins withdrawing its peacekeepers from Golan Heights

June 11, 2013

VIENNA/MANILA: Austria has begun withdrawing peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, winding down a four-decade mission due to spillover fighting from the Syrian civil war, the Defense Ministry said.

A Reuters journalist on the Golan said that Austrian soldiers had already moved from the Qunaitra crossing point to a United Nations base inside the Israeli-held part of the heights Tuesday.

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

A top Israeli government official told AFP Tuesday that several dozen Austrian troops had already left the mission’s headquarters. Israeli public radio said they were administrative staff.

The Austrians have patrolled the buffer zone between Israel and Syria as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force 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.

Two soldiers were wounded last week after Syrian rebels captured a border post then were driven out by government troops.

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Austria would now negotiate with the United Nations about an orderly handover to the next contingent, “if there is one,” but reserved the right to stick to its timetable for a full exit within four weeks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week offered to send Russian troops to the Golan Heights to replace the Austrians, but this was quickly shot down by Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the U.N. peacekeeping department.

She said that the disengagement agreement does not allow the participation of troops from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Austria Chancellor Werner Faymann defended neutral Austria’s decision to withdraw from Golan Heights, where its roughly 380 soldiers make up the biggest contingent in the 1,000-strong force.

“We never could have and would never have wanted to take on a military mission to mediate or intervene between the opposition rebels and governmental troops,” he told reporters after the government’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “We took over a different mandate, which was appropriate for a neutral country.”

He denied that Austria, which also has peacekeeping troops in hot spots including Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia, would suffer in international stature from the move.

Also Tuesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said that he wanted better protection and a robust mandate for the country’s U.N. peacekeeping contingent in the Golan Heights if he decides to keep them there at the risk of violence coming from Syria.

Aquino said he was weighing a proposal made by his foreign secretary to withdraw all 342 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers, but announced no decision right away.

“We need to get some clarification from the U.N. before we could come up with a decision,” Aquino spokesman Ricky Carandang said. “There are no deadlines set.”

The recommendation to withdraw troops follows two separate abductions and shelling by Syrian rebels inside the U.N.-patrolled demarcation line separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied plateau.

Two peacekeepers from the Philippines and India were wounded last week during fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.

Austria’s withdrawal leaves the Philippines as the largest single contributor. Croatia withdrew in March for fears its troops would be targeted.

“There are a lot of countries pulling out. There is heightened fear that if the whole U.N. detachment or the U.N. forces there pull out, there will be no buffer between Israel and Syria,” Aquino said, adding that if that happens, “the two forces will draw closer … and there will be a flare-up of hostilities again.”

Aquino said the changes needed include additional equipment and enhanced security for the peacekeepers, and different rules of engagement.

“If there is no change in the conditions, it might be an undoable mission and our poor troops will be in the middle of two potentially clashing forces and they cannot defend themselves,” Aquino said.

Source: The Daily Star.


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