Austrian troops, who form a key unit in the United Nations observer mission set up on the Golan Heights in 1974, have begun pulling out. Vienna said spillover from Syria's civil war last week left its troops unprotected.
Austria, which has demanded a changed UN mandate for an increasingly tense Golan Heights, began withdrawing its lightly-armed 377 peacekeepers on Wednesday. Japan and Croatia also withdrew troops in recent months.
The first 20 of Austria's UN contingent departed the strategic plateau on Wednesday via the Quneitra Crossing, the only direct passage between Syria and Israel.
They briefly entered a UN base on the Israeli side of the line, according to the news agency AFP. Shortly afterwards, they set out for Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv in a convoy of five coaches accompanied by six smaller vehicles.
UN scrambles to find substitutes
Austria has said its phased pullout will take up to four weeks. That will leave the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) with just 341 Philippine troops and 193 Indian troops - and the UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous scrambling to find fresh troops.
Last Friday, UN officials in New York said the world body hoped to restore UNDOF to its maximum permitted level of 1,250 troops. Its current mandate, drafted for a 1973 ceasefire between Syria and Israel, forbids the inclusion of troops from the five permanent member nations of the UN Security Council.
Last Thursday, two UN peacekeepers were injured when the Quneitra crossing was briefly seized by Syrian rebels and then recaptured by Syria government troops.
Austria said the threat to its soldiers had "reached an unacceptable level". Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger demanded changes to the existing UN mandate, saying an Austrian return to the Golan Heights "isn't rule out, if the conditions change."
On Monday, Spindelegger defended Austria's pullout from criticism by Israel and some Austrian opposition parties: "We took this decision in the government and we are going to implement it, he said after a national security council meeting.
Last week, the Russian government said its troops could replace the Austrians by first amending the UNDOF mandate created during the Cold War.
UNDOF monitors an "area of separation" between Syrian and Israeli forces. It is a narrow strip of land running 72 kilometers (45 miles) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. UN diplomats say, until recently, the force had helped keep the area relatively stable.
ipj/rc (AP, Reuters, AFP)