Austria troops to start Golan pullout amid security woes

VIENNA (AFP) - Austrian troops in a UN monitoring force will begin pulling out from the Golan Heights on Wednesday, the defence ministry said, just days after Vienna's controversial decision to quit the mission.

Austria, a cornerstone of the force which monitors a ceasefire between Syria and Israel, announced on Thursday it would withdraw its peacekeepers because of deteriorating security on the strategic plateau.

Defence Minister Gerald Klug has said the pullout of Austria's 378 soldiers on the Golan would take between two and four weeks.

A defence ministry spokesman told AFP the withdrawal would begin on Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger on Monday defended the move in the face of criticism by Israel and some Austrian opposition parties, and concerns at the United Nations.

"We took this decision in the government and we are going to implement it," he said after a national security council meeting.

The Austrian pullout will leave the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) with just 341 troops from the Philippines and 193 from India. Japan and Croatia have also withdrawn in recent months as battles between Syrian government and opposition forces spread into the ceasefire zone.

President Vladimir Putin said last week that Russian troops could replace the Austrians but under the terms of the 1974 accord that created the force, members of the UN Security Council are not allowed to take part.

The US ambassador to Vienna voiced regret over the Austrian decision and called for it to be reviewed.

"Austria should have called for a wider discussion at the UN about improving the weapons and equipment for the troops," he was quoted as saying in Die Presse.