VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria may withdraw its peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights more slowly than first planned to allow the United Nations extra time to arrange an orderly handover, Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said on Tuesday.
The United Nations has asked Vienna to keep soldiers in the buffer zone between Syria and Israel until the end of July, a month longer than the four-week timetable Austria gave when it announced on June 6 it was recalling its forces.
“We are still going to pull out, but the question of how and when has to be negotiated with the U.N.,” Spindelegger told reporters.
The defense ministry, however, has said the withdrawal would go as planned.
Spindelegger said Austria’s troop commitment accord stipulated that any exit from the Golan, where the Philippines and India also have troops, requires three months’ notice.
“These three months would end on September 6. The offer from the U.N. says July 31. Now we, together with the defense ministry, have to see that we reach a joint withdrawal plan with the U.N. that heeds everyone’s interests,” he said.
The pace of withdrawing Austrian troops after 39 years of monitoring duty on the Golan has exposed splits between the Social Democrat-led defense ministry and the conservative-led foreign ministry ahead of elections due by the end of September.
Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann sought to play down the differences, telling reporters after a cabinet meeting he expected constructive talks to settle the matter.
Spindelegger, the conservatives’ leader, said Austria’s reputation was on the line.
“It is a matter of Austria’s being perceived as a reliable partner. If you have international obligations you have to respect them,” he said.
Nearly 70 Austrian peacekeepers have already returned, leaving just over 300 on the Golan as the U.N. urgently tries to plug the looming gap in the observer mission known as UNDOF.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended to the Security Council this month improving UNDOF’s self-defense capacity and increasing the force’s strength to about 1,250.
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, and the countries technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974, when UNDOF started its work.
Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Alistair Lyon