United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday he regrets Austria’s decision to withdraw its troops from the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights.
“Austria has been a backbone of the mission and their withdrawal will affect the mission’s operational capacity,” UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York.
“We are in discussions with them about the timing of the withdrawal, and with other troop-contributing countries to provide replacement troops,” he added.
Austria’s decision to withdraw its troops from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring the ceasefire line since 1974, came after Syrian rebels briefly seized the only crossing along the Israel-Syria ceasefire line on the Golan, before regime forces recaptured it using tanks.
The fighting took place at the Quneitra crossing and the nearby village of the same name in the demilitarized zone between the Israeli and Syrian parts of the strategic plateau.
Austria reportedly cited a lack of freedom of movement and an unacceptable level of danger to its soldiers in deciding to withdraw. Since last November, UNDOF has had its peacekeepers seized by armed groups, its observation posts attacked and looted, and its freedom of movement curtailed.
Ban, in a statement issued by his spokesperson, noted Austria’s “longstanding and valuable” contribution to UNDOF, and expressed his gratitude to those countries who are continuing to provide troops and military observers to the mission.
“He calls on all parties to respect UNDOF’s freedom of movement and safety and security,” Nesirky said.
Ban underlined that any military activity in the area of separation has the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and Syria and to jeopardize the long-held ceasefire between the two countries.
“The Secretary-General stresses once again that all concerned in the region must abide by international law and relevant Security Council resolutions, and calls on all to work for de-escalation of violence. He urges parties to strictly respect the disengagement agreement, to stop fighting in the area of separation and to refrain from any violation of the disengagement line.”
Ban also noted that the Syria crisis, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives since fighting between the Government and opposition forces seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad began in March 2011, is having an increasingly destabilizing impact beyond its borders.
“The Secretary-General is gravely concerned about the growing regional ramifications of the conflict. He calls on all parties to move swiftly toward a political solution that is the only way to end the violence and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people,” Nesirky said on behalf of the Secretary-General.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry expressed its regret over the decision of the Austrian government to withdraw its soldiers from UNDOF.
“While appreciating Austria's longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” said the Foreign Ministry’s statement.
“Israel expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974), in virtue of which UNDOF has been established.”