UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. peacekeeping department asked Austria Thursday to delay its full troop withdrawal from the Golan Heights until at least the end of July to keep key positions manned and ensure a smooth transition with incoming troops.
Austria announced it would pull out its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member U.N. force after fighting from the Syrian civil war threatened their positions last week. The first contingent, of between 60 and 80 troops, left on Wednesday and Austria had said the withdrawal would be complete in two to four weeks.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the peacekeeping department "has requested the Austrian authorities to ensure that the withdrawal of its personnel takes place in an organized manner, taking into account the mission's operational requirements and the possible negative impact on implementing the mandate."
The department specifically requested that Austrian troops remain at least until the end of July to ensure a continued U.N. presence in critical peacekeeping positions such as Mount Herman and a smooth transition, he said. It also asked Austria to leave all its equipment to support the remaining and incoming peacekeepers.
Austria's U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik told AP: "This request is known to us and the responsible authorities in Vienna and people are working on this request."
The U.N. force was established in 1974 to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights following intensified firing on the Israel-Syria border after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace.
In recent months, Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan, and Israel has responded on several occasions. Rebels have also abducted three groups of UNDOF peacekeepers since March. All were released unharmed after negotiations.
Austria's withdrawal deals a heavy blow to the U.N. forces, leaving just 341 Philippine soldiers and 193 from India. Croatia withdrew in March, fearing its troops would be targeted. U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made, said the Croatian contingent is expected to be replaced by Fijian troops.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has been urgently seeking additional soldiers for the force, known as UNDOF, and met with troop contributors Thursday afternoon. The mandate for the force must be renewed in late June and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended increasing UNDOF's size to its authorized strength of 1,250.