VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will recall its peacekeepers from the U.N. monitoring force on the Golan Heights after worsening fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels sent its soldiers scurrying into bunkers for cover.
Austrians account for about 380 of the 1,000-strong U.N. force observing a decades-old ceasefire between Syria and Israel, and their departure after 39 years will deal a serious blow to the mission.
“Our soldiers are not trained or deployed for a military operation between government troops and rebels,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told a news conference, saying they were not safe in a buffer zone that was no longer respected.
A U.N. spokeswoman said Austria had been a “backbone of the mission” and its withdrawal would affect the force’s operational capacity.
The decision came hours after Syrian rebels seized a U.N.-manned border crossing linking Syria and Israel. Israeli security sources later reported Syrian troops had retaken it after heavy fighting.
Austrian Defence Minister Gerald Klug said the pullout would likely take place over two to four weeks, with the first troops perhaps coming out as part of a planned rotation next Tuesday.
He said the withdrawal could take place much faster if the situation escalated - “a shorter orderly exit within a few hours is possible” - and said returning soldiers could eventually join other Austrian peacekeeping missions in global hot spots.
The United Nations said it was in discussions with other countries about providing replacement troops.
Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “of course not thrilled, quite the opposite” when Spindelegger called him at 0600 Eastern time.
The blue-helmeted ranks of UNDOF, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, have already seen Japanese and Croatian troops depart since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
The Philippines, the other main contributor of combat troops, is still deciding whether to exit after cases where Syrian rebels held its peacekeepers captive. A Filipino soldier was wounded in crossfire on Thursday. India also has soldiers in the mission.
Diplomats have said in the past that Fijian soldiers were likely to fill some gaps, but it was unclear if this was still feasible. In any event, the departure of the critical Austrian contingent is expected to cause the United Nations big problems.
Austria, the only European Union member of UNDOF, has repeatedly warned it could pull its peacekeepers from the Golan should the EU drop a weapons embargo on Syria and arm rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
It relaxed the threat last month after only Britain and France - not the whole bloc - said they were ready to arm rebels, but the government had made clear it was monitoring the situation closely and would pull troops out if risks grew.
UNDOF, essentially with Austrians in the north and Filipinos in the south, monitors a 75-km (47-mile) ribbon of demilitarised zone running from the mountainous Lebanese border in the north to Jordan in the south, separating Syria from the Israeli-held Golan Heights, a plateau first seized from Syria in 1967.
Forty-four members have died since UNDOF was set up in 1974, some in accidents, but until the Syrian conflict erupted, the ceasefire proved one of the most stable in the Middle East, with neither Syria nor Israel willing to challenge the status quo.
“It has been a very successful peacekeeping mission for a very long time and it has managed to maintain a balance between Israel and Syria which has worked very well,” said Paul Beaver, a London-based independent defence analyst.
The recent skirmishes, however, have called into question just how the peacekeeping force there works when a third player complicates the task of separating Israel and Syria. He said it was too early to predict the consequences of Austria’s move.
If the peacekeeping mission were to be weakened or disbanded completely, “that will be a serious loss”, he said.
Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan and Manuel Mogato; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Pravin Char