Austria said Thursday that it was pulling its troops from a United Nations observer mission in the buffer zone between Syria and and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, saying the risk to its soldiers had become “unacceptable” amid fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.
The announcement drew an angry response from Israel, which has been worried for weeks that the escalating danger would prompt U.N. forces to withdraw from the area. Israeli officials said Austria’s observers were critical to the force’s strength and cohesion.
“Without them, everything falls to pieces,’’ Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “It is essential for the U.N. to keep this force alive and kicking.”
Austria made the decision after Syrian rebels briefly captured a U.N.-monitored checkpoint Thursday morning near the abandoned town of Quneitra, Syria’s sole crossing into the Golan Heights. After fierce fighting, government forces later recaptured the post but the situation remained fluid Thursday afternoon.
Austria’s troops make up about a third of the 1,000-member U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, which has helped maintain the peace along the Syrian-Israeli cease-fire line in the Golan Heights since 1974. India and the Philippines have also contributed military personnel.
The area had been largely quiet for decades until the Syrian civil war erupted, resulting in shelling and sporadic clashes between Syrian insurgents and government troops.
Thursday’s fighting was the most intense to date in the area. Two U.N. troops were injured, according to a statement from U.N. headquarters in New York. U.N. personnel have also been captured -- and later released -- by rebel forces in the area.
“The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said in a statement. “The secure movement and provisioning of our soldiers on the Golan heights cannot be assured any more.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regrets Austria’s decision and is urgently looking for replacements, according to a statement released by his office. He called on all sides to respect international agreements and stop fighting in the separation zone, saying any military activity in the area had the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and Syria and “jeopardize the long-held cease-fire between the two countries.”