UNDOF soldiers in Golan overlooking Syria 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Austria will withdraw its peacekeepers from the UN monitoring force on the Golan Heights given worsening fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels, the government said on Thursday.
Austrians account for about 380 of the 1,000-strong UN force monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel, and their departure will deal a serious blow to the mission.
"Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said in a joint statement.
It came hours after Syrian rebels seized a UN-manned border crossing linking Syria and Israel on Thursday. Israeli security sources later reported Syrian troops had retaken it after heavy fighting.
"This morning's developments show that a further delay (in pulling out soldiers) is no longer justifiable," the Austrian statement said.
Austria's defense ministry was in contact with the United Nations' department of peacekeeping operations "to create the conditions for an orderly withdrawal of Austrian peacekeepers", it added.
Earlier Thursday, battles raged between the Syrian army and opposition forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in the UN-manned crossing between Syria and the Golan Heights.
Syrian rebels seized the area in the early morning hours, but Israeli security sources reported Syrian troops later retook it after heavy fighting.
The rarely used Quneitra crossing, in a UN-patrolled demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights, is the only transit point between Syrian and Israeli disengagement lines set in 1974. Battles for its control seemed likely to heighten Israeli security concerns stoked by Syria's civil war.
Several hours after the transit point was seized, Israeli security sources said the Syrian army had recaptured the area, and Syrian state television reported "the crossing is now safe". The Syrian Observatory said it was not clear who was in control.
Israel is worried that the Golan, which it captured from Syria in 1967, and where battles between the two enemies were again fought in 1973, will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by jihadi fighters who are trying to topple Assad.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said the area leading to Quneitra had been closed and that two Syrians who were wounded in the fighting had been taken into Israel for treatment. She could not say whether they were rebels or army soldiers.
Israeli authorities have instructed their citizens to keep away from the border fence area, as heavy fighting continues between the warring parties.
The IDF filed a complaint to the UN over the Syrian army's presence in the ceasefire area, Israel Radio reported.
The head of the United Nations' peacekeeping operations Herve Ladsous confirmed there had been incidents on the Syrian-Israeli border, and added the 1,000-strong United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) had taken measures to ensure the safety of its personnel.
"We are doing everything we can to reduce risks. We have closed posts that were too exposed, reinforced our equipment and vehicles, and our activities are more static," he said.
Quneitra is significant since control over the crossing point is considered one of the more symbolic demonstrations of power exercised by the Damascus government.
Israeli military sources told Army Radio in recent weeks that a takeover of the Quneitra crossing by rebels would constitute a major turning point in Jerusalem’s attitude toward the conflict ravaging its neighbor to the northeast.
Earlier on Thursday, a mortar shell landed at a United Nations base in Quneitra, just a few hundred meters from the border fence separating Israel and Syria, according to media reports Thursday.
In addition, authorities have banned civilians from entering Kibbutz Ein Zivan, a communal settlement that lies hundreds of meters away from the border fence, according to Israel Radio.
According to news reports, the military has also sealed off the section of Route 98 which extends from Aloni Habashan to Kibbutz Ein Zivan.
Alex Shalom, an Israeli farmer from the Golan Heights, said he saw heavy smoke rising from the crossing and Israeli military ambulances evacuating people from the site.