U.N. Golan peacekeepers pull back from four positions amid tension


U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights are pulling out from its positions and a camp on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Israeli border due to a severe deterioration of security in the region, the United Nations said on Monday.

The decision to pull some blue-helmeted troops back to the Israeli side of the Golan Heights comes after recent clashes between members of the U.N. mission, known as UNDOF, and al-Qaeda-linked militants. The skirmishes have been due to increasing spillover from the three-year-old Syrian civil war.

“The situation in UNDOF on the Syrian side and the area of separation has deteriorated severely over the last several days,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

“Armed groups have made advances in the area of UNDOF positions, posing a direct threat to the safety and security of the U.N. peacekeepers along the 'Bravo' (Syrian) line and in Camp Faouar,” he said, adding that all U.N. personnel in those positions have been moved to the “Alpha” – or Israeli – side.

According to a diplomatic source, troops pulled back from positions 10, 16, 31 and 37.

“UNDOF continues to use all available assets to carry out its mandated tasks in this exceptionally challenging environment,” Dujarric said.

There was no suggestion that UNDOF was shutting down. Late last month, 45 Fijian peacekeepers were kidnapped by members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, Islamist militants fighting the Syrian army. They were released last week. At the time the Fijians were abducted, 72 UNDOF Filipino peacekeepers were trapped by the militants, though they succeeded in escaping.

UNDOF, which was established in 1974, monitors a ceasefire line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.

Syria and Israel technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 45 miles (70 km) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.

UNDOF monitors the area of separation, with about 1,220 peacekeepers from six countries.

Before the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, the region was generally quiet and the peacekeepers had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

The force's personnel come from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. The United Nations said last month that the Philippines has decided to pull out of UNDOF and from a U.N. force in Liberia, which is struggling with an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus hitting several West African countries.

Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

How U.N. troops defied orders, opened fire and escaped Syrian rebels


Early on Aug. 28, al Qaeda-linked militants fighting government forces in Syria crossed a ceasefire line in the Golan Heights on Israel's border and seized 45 Fijians serving in a United Nations peacekeeping force.

The leader of a nearby U.N. contingent from the Philippines telephoned a commanding officer in Manila. They were surrounded, the leader said. Should they surrender and risk being kidnapped by the rebels or hold their ground?

The U.N. force commander, General Iqbal Singh Singha of India, fearing Fijian lives could be in jeopardy if the Filipinos engaged in a firefight, ordered the Filipinos to hold their fire. In Manila, General Gregorio Catapang gave different orders to his subordinate thousands of miles away in the Middle East: Stand your ground. Don't surrender.

For three days, Filipino troops fended off hundreds of rebels from the Islamic militant Nusra Front group, killing at least three on the final day before escaping under cover of darkness to Israel. The Fijians were released on Thursday after two weeks of negotiation.

U.N. officials and diplomats say the incident with the Philippine peacekeepers highlights a fundamental problem with peacekeeping missions, one that may be impossible to resolve. National peacekeeping contingents retain allegiance to their commanders at home and when bullets fly, they have no problem disobeying U.N. force commanders and taking orders from home.

Based on interviews with U.N. officials, diplomats and Philippine military sources, including an official report on the incident from Manila, Reuters has pieced together a narrative of the events of Aug. 28 to Aug. 30 leading up to the dramatic escape of Philippine troops from the militants' siege.

It was not the first time that fighting from Syria’s three-year-old civil war spilled onto Israel’s doorstep. But it was the most violent incident in the Golan Heights since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011.

The 1,223-strong six-nation U.N. force, known as UNDOF, has been on the Golan Heights since 1974. Its job is to monitor the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel – the so-called disengagement zone that bars both Israeli and Syrian troops. The two countries have officially been at war since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war but their border has been largely quiet.

Before the Syrian war broke out, blue-helmeted U.N. observers stationed in the mountainous region had a relatively easy job. For years their main enemy was boredom.

That changed in March 2013, when Syrian rebels kidnapped 21 Filipino peacekeepers. All were released unharmed, but two months later rebels kidnapped and released a handful of others. The spillover of violence from Syria's civil war prompted Austria, Croatia and Japan to pull out of UNDOF.

The Philippines also considered pulling out but stayed at the U.N.'s request. Fiji, Nepal and Ireland agreed to help fill UNDOF's depleted ranks and the U.N. Security Council toughened the mission's rules of engagement to give its peacekeepers more freedom to fight back when under threat.

After the 2013 kidnappings, countries providing troops complained that carrying a pistol was insufficient for a shifting battleground where rebels have shoulder-launched missiles and heavy machine guns. They wanted armored vehicles and heavier weapons – and the freedom to shoot to kill, if necessary, when under attack.

In June of last year, when the U.N. Security Council approved its six-month renewal of UNDOF's mandate, the council emphasized “the need to enhance the safety and security of UNDOF.” It also endorsed U.N. recommendations for UNDOF to change its “posture and operations,” allowing troops to defend themselves when attacked. The Security Council language on the UNDOF mandate was typically vague about the lengths to which peacekeepers could go in their own defense, but the new flexibility granted to the force did satisfy the demands of the council members and UNDOF troop contributing countries.

The Filipinos put those tougher rules of engagement to work on Aug. 30 when they killed three rebels in a firefight.

ORDER DISOBEYED

After encircling the troops on Aug. 28, Nusra militants communicated to the Filipinos and to the Fijians, who were being held elsewhere at an unknown location, an offer of safe passage if they handed over their weapons. The Filipinos did not trust the militants to keep their word. Philippine military officials in Manila have said openly that General Singha ordered the surrounded troops to raise a white flag, abandon their positions and leave their guns behind for Nusra, a group that the U.N. Security Council last year added to its blacklist of al Qaeda-linked terrorists.

Taking their orders from home, they ignored General Singha. Rather than abandoning their position and weapons, they stayed put and prepared to defend themselves while Philippine military officials and their UNDOF contingent discussed escape plans.

U.N. officials vehemently denied there was an order for the peacekeepers to leave their guns behind, especially as Nusra is subject to a U.N. arms embargo. What U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has acknowledged is that the Filipinos were ordered to hold their fire to avoid jeopardizing the lives of the Fijians. He voiced total confidence in General Singha's decisions during the standoff.

Two days later, tensions escalated. The Nusra militants were growing impatient at the negotiations with UNDOF. The United Nations had already fulfilled one of Nusra's conditions by issuing a statement that said the world body was told the Fijians were seized “for their own protection.”

But the U.N. statement was not enough for the rebels.

Around 6 a.m. on Aug. 30 the rebels attacked position 68 in the disengagement zone. Militants on three pickup trucks with mounted weapons attempted to ram through the steel gate of the encampment but were unable to break through. The Filipinos fired on the rebels but began to run low on ammunition. Sporadic exchanges of fire lasted for seven hours.

In the meantime, Filipino troops supported by an Irish armored column rushed to nearby position 69 to extract 32 trapped Filipinos. The armored column was fired upon but the U.N. peacekeepers did not fire back. The operation succeeded.

There were still 40 Filipinos trapped at position 68, along with the 45 Fijian hostages elsewhere. The United Nations tried to link the groups in negotiations but Nusra refused, saying they were separate issues.

A ceasefire was reached that would run until negotiations were to resume at 9 a.m. on Aug. 31. Nusra reinforced its siege as more than 20 vehicles with over 200 rebels arrived on the scene to prevent the 40 remaining Filipinos breaking out of position 68 the way their compatriots had done at position 69. But the reinforcement failed to keep the Filipinos penned in. The blue helmets had a new plan.

Under cover of darkness, Filipino soldiers at position 68 quietly cut the barbed wire and one-by-one scaled a perimeter wall three meters (yards) tall, crossed a mine field and walked 2.3 kms (1.4 miles) to the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. The last man reached safety two hours later.

Catapang jubilantly described it to reporters as “the greatest escape”.

U.N. officials acknowledge a sharp disagreement between Singha and the Filipinos, and several accused the Filipinos of thinking only of their own safety and ignoring that of the Fijians held captive.

“The force commander was not only thinking of the security and safety of the Filipinos, but also of the Fijians. Resolving only one issue could affect the resolution of the second problem,” said a senior U.N. official.

Additional reporting by correspondents in Manila, Israel and elsewhere; Editing by Howard Goller

Fiji says Syrian rebels want compensation, removal from terror list


Islamist fighters who seized dozens of Fijian soldiers serving as U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week are demanding that their group be removed from a global terrorism list and that compensation be paid for members killed in fighting, the head of Fiji's army said on Tuesday.

Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga said negotiations had been stepped up betweenh the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and a new U.N. negotiation team now in place in Syria.

“The rebels are not telling us where the troops are, but they continue to reassure us they are being well-looked after,” Tikoitoga told media in Suva. “They also told us they are ensuring that they are taken out of battle areas.”

Heavy fighting erupted on Monday between the Syrian army and Islamist rebels near where 45 Fijian peacekeepers were captured and scores of their fellow blue helmets from the Philippines escaped after resisting capture. The number of Fijians captured had previously been put at 44.

Syria's three-year civil war reached the frontier with Israeli-controlled territory last week when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.

The fighters then turned on the U.N. blue helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line for 40 years. After the Fijians were captured on Thursday, more than 70 Filipinos spent two days besieged at two locations before reaching safety.

The Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, says it is holding the peacekeepers because the U.N. force protects Israel.

Tikoitoga said the group was demanding compensation for three fighters killed in the confrontation with the U.N. peacekeepers, as well as humanitarian assistance to the people of Ruta, a stronghold of the group on outskirts of Damascus, and the removal of the organisation from the U.N. list of banned terrorist organisations.

“We've been assured by U.N. headquarters that the U.N. will bring all its resources to bear to ensure the safe return of our soldiers,” the Fijian army chief said.

HEAVY FIGHTING

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in the Syrian civil war, said the Nusra Front and allied fighters were battling government forces near the Quneitra crossing and in the nearby village of al-Hamiydiah.

The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides. Observatory founder Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters the Nusra Front's aim appeared to be “to end once and for all the regime's presence in the area and it also appears that the goal is to expel the international observers”.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in the area, known as UNDOF, includes 1,223 troops from India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands as well as the Fijians and Filipinos who came under attack last week.

The United Nations has announced that the Philippines will pull out of UNDOF. Austria, Japan and Croatia have also pulled their troops out of the force because of the deteriorating security situation as the civil war in Syria reaches the Golan.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Fiji troops to join depleted Golan peacekeeping force


Some 170 troops from Fiji will join the United Nations peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights in the wake of the withdrawal of Austrian troops.

The new peacekeepers will arrive in the region at the end of the month, the United Nations announced Monday.

Last week, the 380 Austrian troops left the region after fighting between government and rebel forces in Syria’s two-year civil war placed them in danger. Croatia withdrew from the peacekeeping force earlier in the year over similar fears.

With the Austrians’ withdrawal, the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force stationed on the Golan Heights is well short of the 1,000 troops it is supposed to have. The force now has 341 troops from the Philippines and 193 from India.

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for bringing the force to 1,250 troops and enhancing its self-defense capabilities.

The peacekeepers have been stationed on the Golan since 1974 in the wake of a cease-fire agreement following the Yom Kippur War of the previous year.

‘Blue Lagoon’ Honeymoon


Islands and honeymoons are a time-tested match made in heaven. Perhaps that’s why so many newlyweds flirt with Fiji, a gorgeous archipelago nation in the South Pacific. 

This country is the embodiment of romance. One of its most recognizable islands is the Turtle Island resort, made famous as the backdrop for “The Blue Lagoon,” the 1980 classic movie featuring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins as shipwrecked children on a tropical island. 

Overall, the nation of more than 330 islands is a luxurious expanse of flora, fauna, surf and sand, enlivened with a mix of British, Melanesian, Polynesian and Indian cultural influences. Most days, the skies are deep blue, and when rains do hit, the showers are short and mild. Its garden-by-the-sea feel trickles over into its towns.

Adventurous couples will discover that Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu, has plenty to keep them busy. Architecture buffs can wander the grounds of the colorful Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu temple, while botanists should not miss the Garden of the Sleeping Giant (home of actor Raymond Burr’s world-famous orchid collection). There are also local village tours, golfing and multi-island cruises.

Bargain hunters will be drawn to the bustling bazaar environment of Nadi’s central business district, which can be as intense as open-air markets in Thailand and India. Those with more upscale tastes can head to Port Denarau. It serves the local Sheraton and Westin outposts as well as well-to-do expats occupying nearby vacation homes.  

A visit to the Fijian capital of Suva on the opposite end of Viti Levu is a must. It has a full complement of vibrant colonial government buildings, museums and public gardens. It also happens to be home to the nation’s small Jewish community. In 1881, 20-year-old Australian Henry Mark was the first Jew to settle in Fiji, where he was joined later by Jews from India, the Middle East and other Asian countries. Today’s community of about 60 individuals is just as eclectic. 

Still, for many honeymooners seeking an isolated, self-sustaining paradise, it all comes back to “The Blue Lagoon.” The movie was filmed on Turtle Island, known as Nanuya Levu before cable television pioneer Richard Evanson purchased it in 1972.

More than an advertisement for Fiji, the film gave Evanson unexpected inspiration to transform his once private island dream into a resort devised almost exclusively for honeymoons and destination weddings. 

Arrangements can be made for Jewish weddings, thanks to Turtle Island’s planners based in Washington, not far from where Evanson grew up. The “Richard’s Retreat” area where Evanson, who is not Jewish, married his current wife, has its own built-in chuppah. Devil’s Beach and Honeymoon Beach, meanwhile, are great for an informal exchange of vows or a private picnic.

Although the island has a long tradition of Christian weddings, as well as a beautiful chapel, planners will also assist Jewish couples with special arrangements and with their gourmet meals. 

While Shields and Atkins had each other and a tricked-out tree house in “The Blue Lagoon,” they have nothing on what Turtle Island guests are able to enjoy. Expansive bures — wood-and-straw huts — come with hardwood interiors and their own hot tubs, top-shelf wines and spirits, dreamy bedding and delicious coconut-infused toiletries. Each couple has a “Bure Mama” or “Papa” who tends to their needs.  

Activities available include scuba diving, snorkeling, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, kayaking or just enjoying one’s bure with a glass of Moët and a good book when the occasional rains come. 

It’s little surprise, then, that a number of notables keep coming back to Turtle Island. Visitors who have made it their home-away-from-home include movie producer Andrew Tennenbaum (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Water for Elephants”), Sen. John McCain (14 stays and counting), Al Gore, Eddie Van Halen, John Cleese and Ringo Starr. 

From the moment his first guests arrived on Jan. 1, 1980, Evanson was determined to create an internationally acclaimed honeymoon destination that was rooted in nature and true to the Fijian way of life, and it continues to be a work in progress. Ongoing improvements include the preservation of mangroves and coconut groves, the introduction of freshwater ponds to encourage bird life and the creation of a turtle release program designed to help save endangered green and hawksbill turtles.

Fruits and vegetables from Turtle Island’s hydroponic gardens are transformed, along with fish and meats from New Zealand and Australia, into a wide assortment of globally inspired dishes under the guidance of French-Australian chef Jacques Reymond. The menu theme changes on a daily basis, with the weekly Mongolian barbecue, Indian feast, American-style barbecue with a Polynesian spin standing as culinary highlights. 

Nightly convivial group dinner begins with a nondenominational “grace” said in the Fijian language, and the staff does a choral performance every Sunday — a must for fans of world music. While the church vocals are stunning, more-religious Jewish couples can inform general manager Alex Weiss about their preferences if they are uncomfortable.

A handful of couples keep to themselves, but most visitors take advantage of these dinners, sometimes forming friendships that could last a lifetime. And so, while Evanson himself will insist the Turtle Island experience is a couple’s-only affair, it is the sort of thing that ideally should be shared. Isn’t that kind of warmth a big part of what romance is all about? 

 

For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>turtlefiji.com.

South Seas Seder


Namotu is a little speck of an atoll barely three acres in
area, about the size of a typical shopping center. It’s part of the South
Pacific island nation of Fiji, and it’s where my group of surfing lawyers
decided to spend our annual legal seminar/surf trip last year.

As the date for the trip approached, I realized that I would
be away from my family for Passover. Having never missed a family seder in my
life, I began having second and third thoughts. I sent an e-mail to my fellow
travelers, asking if anyone would be interested in participating in a seder
while in Fiji. Many replied that they would.

On the day preceding Passover on Namotu, I posted a notice
on a well-worn bulletin board: “Passover seder tonight.” I figured about 20 of the
25 individuals in our group were Jewish and they would be attending.

That afternoon, I was approached by a Fijian man. He saw the
notice and wanted to talk to me. He explained that many Fijians were devout
Methodists, having only within the last 100 years given up their previous
religious belief and the practice of cannibalism. They were very interested in
the Passover experience and were themselves preparing for Good Friday and
Easter Sunday observances.

The locals were expecting their annual visit from the
minister and informed him by radio of the seder. He asked the Fijians to ask me
if I could spare any matzahs for use in their observance as the sacrament. I
told him of course, and I would consider it an honor if any of the Fijians
would like to attend the seder.

As the time for the seder approached, the small boats began
to arrive. The native women were attired in their finest dresses, with their
black hair exotically done. The men, who usually wore shorts and T-shirts,
showed up in their finest shirts and sarongs.

The tables were beautifully set — outdoors, under the night
sky — with the finest linens, napkins and china. Where such things came from, I
had no idea. The haggadahs and kippot were distributed and the seder began. As
the readings progressed around the table, I thought of my family, friends and
past seders. They were all memorable, all special, but this night was truly
different from all other seder nights.

One of our boatmen, Wonga, stood at the table wearing his
finest flowered sarong and white shirt. With kippah in place, he held up the matzahs.
He pronounced in halting English, “Lo, this is the bread of affliction.”

I glowed.

Everyone enjoyed themselves and talked about the seder for
many days afterward. The natives told me this was probably the first seder in Fiji
— or certainly on Namotu — and they wouldn’t forget it.