GOLAN HEIGHTS (2nd UPDATE) – Hundreds of UN troops withdrew from the Syrian to the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan on Monday, September 15, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said, two weeks after Al-Qaeda-linked rebels kidnapped dozens of the peacekeepers.
They crossed in a UN convoy in the afternoon into the Israeli-occupied sector, the correspondent said.
UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric later confirmed the news about the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in a press conference at the UN Headquarters in New York. Filipino peacekeepers are among those deployed to the Golan Heights.
“The situation in UNDOF on the Syrian side and the area of separation has deteriorated severely over the last several days,” Dujarric said.
The spokesman said armed groups “made advances” in the area of UNDOF positions, posing a direct threat to the safety and security of UN peacekeepers along the so-called Bravo line in Camp Faouar.
“All the UN personnel in these positions have thus been relocated to the ‘Alpha’ side. UNDOF continues to use all available assets to carry out its mandated tasks in this exceptionally challenging environment,” he said.
Dujarric said the UN is not yet able to identify who the armed groups are, only describing them as “not the regular forces.” He said that the relocation of UN personnel involved various units but could not yet give details on the number and nationalities.
Ambassador Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said in a separate press briefing that the withdrawal is only temporary. The US currently holds the presidency of the UN Security Council.
“I would only take this occasion to urge all parties to respect the mission of UNDOF, the personnel, the equipment, and of course, we condemn any overrunning of UNDOF facilities …. We would also urge UNDOF to reoccupy those positions as soon as that becomes feasible,” Power said.
UNDOF monitors a 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.
In late August, rebels on the Syrian side including Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front seized the Quneitra crossing and kidnapped 45 Fijian UNDOF troops, before they were released two weeks later.
They also clashed with 75 Filipino members of the force, who eventually fled a nearby outpost.
Rebels including Al-Nusra have now taken control of most of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Britain-based Syria monitoring group said on Saturday.
The deterioration of the situation in the Golan Heights, and the spillover from the Syrian civil war have sparked countries like the Philippines to call on the UN to review the rules of engagement and the mandate of UNDOF. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario is set to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon this week to discuss Manila’s proposal.
Last week, Ban’s spokesman said UNDOF’s mandate remains viable and the peacekeepers continue to fulfill their task.
The fighting in Syria has driven thousands of families in the area from their homes, the Red Cross said.
“Clashes between government forces and the armed opposition have intensified in recent days in Quneitra governorate – in Quneitra city in particular, where access to clean water, food, and health care is limited,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement.
The ICRC said it has provided emergency relief for more than 50,000 people, but warned the number of displaced people was “expected to grow.”
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan during the Six-Day War of 1967, then annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.
Some 510 square kilometers of the Golan remain on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line, with UNDOF overseeing a buffer zone stretching some 70 kilometers from Lebanon in the north, to Jordan in the south.
UNDOF’s mandate is renewed every 6 months, and currently runs until December 31.
Six countries contribute troops to the 1,200-strong UN force on the Golan: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines.
The Filipino peacekeepers will end their tour of duty in October after the recent standoff with the Syrian rebels, and two kidnappings last year. – with reports from Ayee Macaraig at the United Nations and Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com