Austrian peacekeepers quitting U.N. force amid heavy fighting at Syria-Israel border

Israel started construction on the new fence separating the Golan Heights from Syria, seen in front of the old one, in response to possible consequences from the Syrian civil war.  (Ben Sales/JTA)

Israel started construction on the new fence separating the Golan Heights from Syria, seen in front of the old one, in response to possible consequences from the Syrian civil war. (Ben Sales/JTA)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Austria withdrew its soldiers from the U.N. peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights following battles between Syrian troops and rebels.

On Thursday, Austria said it would be withdrawing its 380 soldiers — more than one-third of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force that has been stationed on the Golan for 40 years.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry called on the U.N. to maintain security at the border.

“While appreciating Austria’s longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” the ministry said in a statement. “Israel expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974), in virtue of which UNDOF has been established.”

The withdrawal came after rebels and government forces in Syria’s civil war exchanged control of the border crossing between Israel and Syria.

The Quneitra Crossing on the Golan Heights changed hands at least twice Thursday, with the rebels taking the area in the morning and the army of President Bashar Assad retaking control later in the day, according to reports. The crossing is located about 200 feet from an Israeli army post.

A day earlier, the Syrian army and its Hezbollah volunteers captured the strategic town of Qusair on the Lebanon border following a two-week battle.

Following the retaking of Qusair, the Syrian military threatened Israel, saying in a statement that the victory sends a “clear message” to the “Zionist enemy.”

Israeli farmers in the area were instructed to keep away from the crossing area, Ynet reported.

Meanwhile, Israel lodged a complaint with the United Nations over Syria’s use of tanks on the Golan, which violates a cease-fire agreement between the two countries.

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