UN cuts Golan patrols as Syria war dangers mount

AFP , Thursday 14 Mar 2013

In light of escalating Syrian conflict and resent abductions, UN cuts down on peacekeepers in the Golan Heights responsible for monitoring truce between Syria and Israel since late 1970s

United Nations peacekeepers driving through the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, in Golan Heights 8 March, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

The United Nations has cut peacekeeper patrols in the Golan Heights ceasefire zone amid fears that Syria's civil war could spark new withdrawals from the force, diplomats said Wednesday.

The abduction last week of 21 Philippine members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has monitored a truce between Syria and Israel since 1974, has heightened security fears.

Canada pulled its troops out in March 2006 while Japan and Croatia withdrew their contingents in recent months, leaving only the Philippines, Austria and India in UNDOF.

The Philippine government said it is reviewing its activities after the 21 troops were held for four days by Syrian rebels. Austria has also raised concerns to the UN, diplomats said.

"There is a risk they will all leave. And if they all leave then the mission is in definite crisis," said one senior UN diplomat.

"There is a real danger of the total unraveling of the force," added another senior Security Council diplomat.

The UN has "decided to restrict the movement of UNDOF," said the UN diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. "They are no longer doing patrols. They have closed down some of the observation posts."

Shots were fired at one observation post after the Filipinos were freed last Saturday.

UNDOF observers only have sidearms "so they can't defend themselves if they are attacked with machine guns," the diplomat said.

The UN has complained to the Syrian government about incursions by President Bashar al-Assad's forces into the Golan zone and about rebels who have built up their presence. At least two shells fired by Syrian forces have landed inside Israel.

Without giving details on UNDOF's activities, UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer acknowledged the growing concerns and said changes to the force were started several months ago.

"The mission is having to assess the way it works so that the troops are safe and the most critical roles are carried out," Dwyer told AFP.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is to make new recommendations about UNDOF to the Security Council next week. The council may call a special meeting with the remaining troop contributors in a bid to reassure them, the diplomats said.

The UN spokesman and the diplomats stressed the importance of the mission in making sure that the tensions do not create a new conflict alongside the two-year-old war in Syria.

"Symbolically, it is very important that UNDOF is there. Because the last thing we want is for the Syrian crisis to spill over into Israel in a dramatic way and start flare-ups and new conflict in the Golan Heights," said the UN diplomat.

The Philippines said it is reviewing its operations but indicated it has no immediate plan to withdraw.

"The president will make a review of our peacekeeping operations but not only in Golan Heights, in our operations around the world," said Philippine military spokesman, Colonel Arnulfo Burgos, in Manila.

He said it was a "standard operating procedure" after the abduction.

Burgos said the 21 peacekeepers who were abducted had indicated that they want to stay in the Golan mission and that Philippine involvement in UN peacekeeping was "a national commitment."

India insisted it would stay in UNDOF. "We are not considering any plans to withdraw our forces from the Golan Heights," foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told AFP in New Delhi.

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