VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will send more peacekeepers to the Balkans and Africa after its withdrawal from the Golan Heights last year raised questions about the neutral Alpine country’s international commitment.
Austria’s unilateral decision to pull its troops out of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Golan, where it had been the biggest contingent, provoked anger in Israel and an expression of “regret” from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the time.
Defence Minister Gerald Klug said on Tuesday Austria would raise the total number of its peacekeepers to above 1,000 from 800 by sending an extra 230 soldiers to Kosovo and Bosnia and a handful of officers to the EU’s Central African Republic force.
“Increased engagement in Africa is on the Austrian political agenda,” Klug told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting. “I don’t rule out that we will engage more intensively.”
Austria is the biggest contributor to peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, an area where it has strong historical links and which it views as strategically important.
Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said he had wanted to raise the number of Austrian peacekeepers abroad quickly after taking office in December “to show we are serious about our international responsibilities”.
Austria aims to have 1,100 soldiers on foreign duty soon.
Vienna withdrew its almost 400 peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights last June during an Austrian national election campaign, saying spillover fighting from the Syrian civil war made their position too dangerous.
Kurz told Austrian ORF radio on Monday: “The withdrawal from Golan certainly didn’t win us any points internationally and so I consider it positive that we have decided to raise the number of peacekeepers in international missions.”
Defence Minister Klug said up to nine Austrian officers would join the EU’s Central African Republic peacekeeping force, initially at the force’s headquarters in Larissa, Greece, with an option that some could go on to the capital Bangui.
The 130 Austrian troops joining the KFOR force in Kosovo will replace a French contingent.
Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Gareth Jones