Ban Ki-moon
Ban Ki-moon AFP photo

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday called for better protection for UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights to counter the growing threat of spillover violence from the Syria conflict, AFP reports.

Ban made the call as Austrian troops started withdrawing from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) following attacks and abductions of peacekeepers. Croatia and Japan have also withdrawn in recent months.

UN troops monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel traditionally only carry small arms.

Ban called on the UN Security Council to consider measures to beef up the force. “These include, as a matter of priority, enhancing the self-defense capabilities of UNDOF,” he said in a report quoted by AFP.

“It is also necessary to consider further adjustments to the posture and operations of the mission,” said Ban.

Diplomats said better self-defense would mean more armored cars and body armor and the changes to the mission operations would mean further cutting back on patrols and perhaps closing some observer positions.

Austria, the biggest single contributor to UNDOF, began withdrawing its troops from the force on Wednesday. About 70 soldiers from the 378-strong Austrian contingent entered Israel to begin their journey home.

The UN had appealed for more time to find a replacement for the departing soldiers, but Austria remained adamant about pulling out its troops.

Austria’s Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told the local Oesterreich newspaper on Sunday that his country does not rule out returning its UN peacekeepers to the Golan Heights if their mandate is improved.

The Austrian pullout will leave the UNDOF, headquartered in Quneitra, with just 341 troops from the Philippines and 193 from India.

President Vladimir Putin said last week that Russian troops could replace the Austrians but under the terms of the 1974 accord that created the force, permanent members of the UN Security Council are not allowed to take part.