7 Jun 2013

Austria to pull peacekeepers from Golan Heights

11:43 am on 7 June 2013

Austria says it will withdraw its United Nations peacekeepers from the Golan Heights after fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels.

The upsurge of fighting near the ceasefire line has raised fears the Syrian conflict could spread across Syria's borders.

Israeli military sources say the Syrian army took control of a UN-monitored crossing in the Golan Heights which had been briefly overrun by Syrian rebel forces.

Rebels had seized the crossing near the town of Quneitra on Thursday, with explosions and heavy shelling rocking the area, the BBC reports.

An Israeli military source said Syrian government forces retook the symbolically significant position hours later.

The Golan Heights are on the border between Israel, Syria and Lebanon and a ceasefire line is guarded by UN peacekeepers.

Austrian troops make up more than a third of the more than 900-strong UN force monitoring the demilitarised zone and Quneitra - the only open crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Israel expressed regret at Austria's decision, and said it hoped it would not lead to "further escalation" in the region.

The UN said the withdrawal of Austrian troops would affect the mission's operational capacity and it would look for replacements.

Croatia, Canada and Japan had already withdrawn their contingents in the Golan because of the conflict in Syria.

New Zealand has four defence personnel on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights as part of a United Nations mission. The Government has yet to say whether it will consider withdrawing its peacekeepers.

Last month, a New Zealand army officer was abducted from the Syrian border and then released unharmed after five hours.