Two UN peacekeepers have been wounded during clashes between Syrian government forces and rebels over control of a border crossing near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Austrian government decided to withdraw all 380 of its UN peacekeepers from the 900-strong UN mission area on Thursday after the border post was taken by Syrian rebels and then recaptured by government forces during a fierce battle that was still raging.
“We no longer have freedom of movement,” Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said in a joint written statement.
“The uncontrolled and imminent danger to Austrian soldiers has reached an unacceptable level.”
UN peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said the withdrawal would affect the operational capacity of the mission observing a decades-old ceasefire between Syria and Israel.
“Austria has been a backbone of the mission and their withdrawal will impact the mission’s operational capacity,” Guerrero said.
“We are in discussions with them about timing, and with other troop-contributing countries to provide replacement troops.”
Israel’s foreign ministry issued a written statement saying it regreted Austria’s decision and hoped it would not bring further escalation of violence in the region.
The decision came as UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said two peacekeepers were wounded from the fallout of heavy weapons fire in the area.
Dwyer did not give the nationalities of the injured peacekeepers, but a written Filipino military statement said a Philippine UN peacekeeper was wounded by shrapnel on Thursday amid fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.
“He is being treated by medics inside a shelter and is in stable and good condition,” the statement said.
Syria’s official news agency SANA reported earlier that the army had repulsed a group that attempted to seize the crossing in the town of Quneitra, near Golan.
SANA quoted an official source as saying that a large number of rebels were killed or injured in the battle.
The fighting followed a claim by opposition fighters that they had captured the crossing.
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the situation inside Syria, confirmed that clashes had taken place, but said their outcome was unclear.