JERUSALEM (JTA) — Austria began the withdrawal of its 380 soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.
The Austrians, who comprise more than a third of the 1,000-member U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, crossed on Wednesday from the Syrian side of the Golan to a U.N. base on the Israeli side. Some of the troops were scheduled to arrive in Vienna later in the day.
Last week, Austria said it was pulling its soldiers after fighting between government and rebel forces in Syria’s two-year civil war placed them in danger.
Croatia withdrew from the peacekeeping force earlier in the year due to similar fears.
Soldiers from the Philippines and India remain on the force. However, on Tuesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he also is considering pulling out his 342 soldiers.
The head of the peacekeeping force told an Austrian newspaper on Wednesday that he did not have enough time from Austria’s announcement to the withdrawal to find replacements.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week offered to send Russian troops to replace the withdrawing soldiers, but was turned down since the 40-year-old cease-fire agreement stipulates that soldiers from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council cannot be included in the force.
The U.N. force has been stationed on the Golan for 40 years.