UN withdraws many peacekeepers from Golan Heights

2014-09-15 19:49
Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria's Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clashed with President Assad’s forces, seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. (Abdullah Doma, AP)

Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria's Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clashed with President Assad’s forces, seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. (Abdullah Doma, AP)

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New York - The United Nations said on Monday it has withdrawn its peacekeepers from many positions on the Golan Heights because of escalating fighting in the war between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters.

UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told The Associated Press that he doesn't think every single post has been vacated. The UN peacekeepers withdrawn on Monday have been moved to the Israeli side of the border.

"But obviously the situation has deteriorated across a wide span of the territory so we've had to leave from a lot of places," he said.

The 1 200-strong UN force has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war.

For nearly four decades, UN monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the spillover from the Syrian war has led to the abduction of peacekeepers four times since March 2013, made troop contributors wary, and led several countries to withdraw their soldiers.

The UN decision follows last week's release of 45 Fijian peacekeepers captured on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights by fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

The Fijian troops were captured on 28 August, a day after militants seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad's troops.

Two groups of Filipino peacekeepers were also trapped at separate UN encampments that day, surrounded by rebel fighters who demanded they surrender.

They refused, and both groups eventually escaped - one busting out with the help of Irish colleagues, and the other by slipping away under the cover of darkness.

For the Philippines, the August incident was the third time its peacekeepers got caught up in the Syrian violence.

Twenty-one Filipino peacekeepers were abducted on 6 March 2013 by the Syrian rebel group Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which held them for three days. Another group of four Filipinos was abducted by the Yarmouk rebels on 7 May 2013, and released five days later.

In another abduction, armed men broke into a UN outpost in the buffer zone on 15 May 2013, and captured three unarmed military observers from the UN Truce Supervision Organisation. They were held by the Syrian men for about five hours and released.

Despite the spillover of the Syrian conflict into the Golan, UN officials and diplomats have insisted that the role of the UN peacekeeping force known as UNDOF is crucial to Middle East stability.

The United Nations had previously withdrawn troops from several vulnerable positions in the Golan Heights, and UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous had strengthened the force with armored equipment and other military hardware. The mission had reduced some patrols, but there has been no move to alter its mandate.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said after the Fijians were released on Thursday that the mandate is up for renewal soon and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will send Security Council members his report on the mission, giving council members a chance to assess the situation.

Read more on:    un  |  syria

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