Middle East

Austria begins withdrawal of Golan UN peacekeepers

UN vehicles at the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria
Image caption The UN monitors the only open border crossing between Syria and the Golan Heights

Austria has begun withdrawing its soldiers from the Golan Heights after nearly four decades of monitoring a UN buffer zone between Israel and Syria.

The Ministry of Defence in Vienna said that the decision was taken as violence from the conflict in Syria spilled over into the ceasefire area.

"The first 60 to 80 soldiers will land in Vienna tomorrow afternoon," said a ministry spokesman.

The full Austrian withdrawal will be completed within a month.

More than 900 UN soldiers form the mission, known as the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof), monitoring the demilitarised zone between Syria and Israel, including Quneitra - the only open crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

The withdrawal of Austria's 377 peacekeepers will leave the Philippines as the largest contributor. India also has troops based in the Golan, but Croatia, Canada and Japan have withdrawn their contingents because of the conflict in Syria.

Syria's deployment of tanks in the demilitarised zone violates ceasefire agreements in place since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, but sources have told the BBC that Israel will not react.

Israel captured part of the plateau in 1967 and later annexed it in a move that has never been internationally recognised.

Israeli officials have voiced fears the civil war in Syria could spill over their borders. They are worried the Golan Heights could be used to launch attacks against Israel - either by Islamist extremists fighting for the rebels, or by Hezbollah militants fighting on the government side.