In response to mounting violence in Syria, Austria began withdrawing its lightly armed peacekeeping force from the Golan Heights Wednesday.
The first 20 of its 377 troops left the strategic plateau, entering Israel through the Quneitra Crossing and boarding buses for Ben-Gurion Airport, Germany’s Deutsche Welle reported
. Austria has said the pullout will take up to four weeks.
Austrian troops have patrolled the Golan buffer zone between Israeli and Syrian forces since it was set up by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in 1974.
Vienna said it would withdraw its troops after worsened fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels "sent its soldiers running for cover," Ynetnews reported
Two peacekeepers were injured last week as rebels briefly seized the Quneitra crossing, which was later recaptured by the Syrian military.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Fayman defended the pullout, stating that Austria "never could have and would never have wanted to take on a military mission to mediate or intervene between the opposition rebels and government troops," he said.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu linked the UNDOF’s Golan pullout to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
"The disintegration of the U.N. force in the Golan" illustrates that Israel cannot rely on international forces to protect it, he said.
Such forces "cannot be the only crutch on which Israel’s security leans," Netanyahu added.
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