Austria’s U.N. peacekeepers left their posts and began withdrawing from the Golan Heights on Wednesday, after fighting from the Syrian civil war threatened their positions last week.
The move came after Austria announced it would pull out its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member U.N. force.
Associated Press footage showed Austrian troops leaving the Syrian side and moving to the Israeli side of the Golan on Wednesday morning at the Quneitra crossing point, which was briefly overrun by Syrian rebels last Thursday.
Austria’s Defence Ministry spokesman Col. Michael Bauer said between 60 and 80 soldiers from the Golan are expected to land later in the day at Vienna airport.
The pullout deals a heavy blow to the U.N. forces, which have been posted in the Golan since 1974 to monitor the cease-fire. The force also includes 341 Philippine soldiers and 193 from India. Croatia withdrew in March, fearing its troops would be targeted.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that the Austrian withdrawal shows his country can only rely on itself for security.
Israel has been warily watching the Syrian conflict since it broke out in March 2011, fearing the violence could spill across its borders at any time.
And although Syrian President Bashar Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel has been careful not to take sides in the war next door, partly because the Assad family has kept the border with Israel quiet for the past 40 years.
Israel is also concerned that if Assad’s regime is toppled, Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, some of whom are linked to al-Qaida, fighting against the Syrian regime.
Last Thursday, Syrian rebels overran the U.N. position at the border post near the abandoned town of Quneitra, holding it for several hours before Syrian government troops retook it. The international peacekeepers who maintain a 40-year-old truce receive most of their supplies through that position from Israel.
Fierce Syrian gunbattles forced the peacekeepers to seek shelter in a nearby base, and the Philippine military said one of its peacekeepers was wounded when a mortar or artillery shell struck the area. U.N. diplomats said an Indian peacekeeper also was injured that day.
Israel and Syria agreed to the creation of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force after the 1973 Mideast war.