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.

Syrian rebels take towns near ceasefire line with Israel


Syrian rebels have overrun several towns near Israel's Golan Heights in the past 24 hours, rebels and a monitoring group said on Thursday, fuelling tensions in the sensitive military zone.

“We have been attacking government positions as the army has been shelling civilians, and plan to take more towns,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk”, a rebel brigade operating in the area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group monitoring the conflict in Syria, said rebels had taken several towns near the Golan plateau, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed.

It said that on Wednesday night rebels had captured Khan Arnabeh, which sits on the Israeli-Syrian disengagement line and straddles a main road leading into Israeli-held territory.

Rebels also took Mashati al-Khadar and Seritan Lahawan, two villages near the ceasefire line, it said.

U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the line halted patrols this month after rebels held 21 Filipino observers for three days.

The armed struggle between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has posed increasing difficulties for the 1,000-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

There is growing concern in Israel that Islamist rebels may be emboldened to end the quiet maintained by Assad and his father before him on the Golan front since 1974.

Rebel sources say the Syrian army intensified shelling of villages in the area of Saham al-Golan at dawn on Thursday.

They said that rebels in the Quneitra region, next to the Golan, were stepping up attacks on roadblocks to gain more territory but added that the strategic town of Quneitra – which was largely destroyed and abandoned during Israeli-Syrian clashes in 1974 – was still in Syrian government hands.

Reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Alistair Lyon

U.N. curbs Golan patrols after peacekeepers seized, diplomats say


U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israel's Golan Heights have scaled back patrols after rebels detained 21 Filipino observers for three days last week, diplomats said on Thursday.

The seizure of the unarmed observers highlighted the vulnerability of the 1,000-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), whose mission began in 1974, to the growing violence in Syria.

It also heightened concern in Israel that Islamist rebels, separated from Israeli troops only by a toothless U.N. force, may be emboldened to end years of quiet maintained by President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him on the Golan front.

“They have reduced their patrols for now, halted patrols in areas like the place where the Filipinos were taken hostage,” one diplomat in the region said.

A U.N. official in Damascus declined to comment, but two Israeli officials confirmed that UNDOF had reduced operations.

The capture of the 21 peacekeepers was the latest challenge for the United Nations force, comprised of troops from the Philippines, India, Croatia and Austria.

Japan said it was withdrawing soldiers from UNDOF three months ago in response to the violence in Syria. Croatia said last month it would also pull out its troops as a precaution after reports, which it denied, that Croatian arms had been shipped to Syrian rebels.

Two weeks ago the United Nations said an UNDOF staff member had gone missing. It did not identify him but one rebel source identified him as a Canadian legal adviser and said he had been captured by another rebel force and held for ransom.

VIOLENCE MAY FORCE CHANGES

The diplomat said the new restrictions on UNDOF affected mainly the southern part of its “area of separation”, between Syrian and Israeli forces, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.

“But it does affect all areas where there are potential security issues,” she said, adding that the whole UNDOF operation may need to be “reframed and reworked”.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a December report to the Security Council that fighting between Syrian armed forces and rebels inside the area of separation has “the potential to ignite a larger conflict between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, with grave consequences”.

Israel warned 10 days ago that it could not be expected to stand idle as Syria's civil war, in which 70,000 people have been killed, spilled over into the Golan Heights.

The 21 Filipino peacekeepers were released on Saturday by Syrian rebels who had seized them and held them for three days in the southern village of Jamla.

The rebels from the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade initially accused the peacekeepers of collaborating with Assad's forces during heavy fighting last week and of failing to carry out their mandate to keep heavy arms away from the frontier region.

At first they demanded the Syrian army cease shelling in the area and pull back from Jamla village as a condition for releasing the peacekeepers, but later described them as guests and escorted them to freedom in Jordan.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon

UN observers march out of Syria into Israel


A number of United Nations truce observers abandoned their posts in the Golan Heights and crossed the border into Israel.

Ynet reported that the observers, who serve in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone deployed in the buffer zone that runs along the border between Syria and Israel, said they had been ordered by their commanders to clear out of the area.

Israel Army Radio reported that eight observers left their posts.

On Wednesday, Syrian rebels captured and abducted 21 U.N. observers from the Philippines near the Syrian village of Jamlah, less than a mile from the border with Israel.

A spokesperson for the government of the Philippines said the rebels have pledged to hold the observers captive as long as the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad are deployed near Jamla.

The observers who crossed into Israel signalled their intention to approach the fence and starting marching in that direction, Army Radio reported. Troops directed them to an opening and brought them in for transfer to the U.N.'s Ein Zivanit compound.

Syria rebels say they’re not in talks to free U.N. peacekeepers


Syrian rebels holding 21 U.N. peacekeepers near the Israel's Golan Heights in southern Syria said on Friday no talks were under way to free the men and gave no indication that they would be released soon.

The men are part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.

Their capture just a mile from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria's conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighboring countries.

“There are no negotiations between any parties,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” brigade that captured the Filipino peacekeepers on Wednesday.

In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well in the village of Jamla by civilians and rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were “guests”, not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.

However, he said they would only be released once Assad's forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.

“Negotiations should be between (the United Nations) and the regime of Bashar al-Assad to stop the bombing and lift the blockade of the area so it can be safe,” Taseel said.

The Damascus government has not commented publicly about the incident.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had been approached by the Syrian opposition and was prepared to play a role in “receiving” the peacekeepers once they are released, but would not get involved in actual negotiations.

The ICRC was ready “to play the role of neutral intermediary in the framework of the kidnapping of the UNDOF soldiers provided that this is agreeable to all the parties concerned,” ICRC spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr told Reuters in Geneva.

INCURSIONS IN DE-MILITARISED ZONE

Taseel said the U.N. observers had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area.

Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20 km (13 miles) of the disengagement line.

Taseel said the Syrian military had exceeded those limits and that its warplanes were bombing opposition targets within 500 meters (yards) of the disengagement line.

A U.N. report in December said both the Syrian army and rebels had entered the de-militarized area between Syrian and Israeli forces, and that Syrian army operations had “affected adversely” UNDOF operations.

Referring to incidents including shelling from Syrian territory last year, it said: “Recent incidents across the ceasefire line have shown the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries.”

In January, Israel bombed an arms convoy in Syria which may have been destined for its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, diplomats and security sources said. Israel has said it will not “stand idle” if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in 1967.

The Israeli army told Reuters that eight UNDOF soldiers were “evacuated into Israel” from their lookout post on Friday, but gave no reason for the move.

The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in Syria in the past two years. An uprising that began with mainly peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 has spiraled into an increasingly sectarian armed conflict.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Jon Hemming

Syria rebels want troop pullback before they free U.N. men


Rebels holding 21 U.N. peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria say government forces must leave the area before they free their “guests”, an activist in touch with the fighters said on Thursday.

Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” rebel brigade as saying the peacekeepers were being held as “guests” in the village of Jamla, about a mile from a ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“He said they will not be harmed. But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area,” Abdelrahman said after speaking to the rebel spokesman on Thursday morning.

The capture of the U.N. peacekeepers close to Israeli-held territory was another sign that Syria's conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over to neighboring countries.

Israel has said it will not “stand idle” if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East war. But a senior Defense Ministry official voiced confidence on Thursday that the United Nations could secure the peacekeepers' release, signaling that Israel would not intervene.

Suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents killed 48 Syrian troops inside Iraq on Monday and cross-border artillery fired from Syria has killed people in Lebanon and Turkey in recent months.

Wednesday's detention of the peacekeepers by around 30 gunmen will also reinforce Western concerns that any weapons supplied to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad could end up being turned against Western interests.

Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said rebels from the Martyrs of Yarmouk have been seen in other videos carrying a grenade launcher that appears to be Croatian. Media reports last month quoted U.S. officials saying Saudi Arabia was sending Croatian arms to Syrian rebels.

The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising which erupted in March 2011 with mainly peaceful protests against Assad and has spiraled into an increasingly sectarian conflict.

The Philippine government condemned the capture of the peacekeepers – three officers and 18 enlisted men – which it called a “gross violation of international law”.

President Benigno Aquino told reporters the peacekeepers were being well treated and that the United Nations was in touch with the rebels to ensure their safety. “By tomorrow they expect all of these 21 to be released,” he said, adding their release might occur as early as Thursday.

Aquino said both sides in the Syrian conflict considered the United Nations a “benign presence” in the country – a view not shared by many Syrian rebels, who hold the organization at least partly responsible for a lack of international support.

RIGHTS GROUP INVESTIGATING CLAIMS

In a video released to announce the capture of the U.N. convoy on Wednesday, a member of the Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade accused the peacekeepers of collaborating with Assad's forces to try to push them out of village of Jamla which the rebels seized on Sunday after heavy fighting.

A Facebook statement issued later in the name of the Yarmouk Martyrs denied the U.N. soldiers had been detained and said they were being protected from bombardment by Assad's forces.

That statement appeared at odds not only with the original rebel statement but with the footage showing the convoy halted in the middle of a road, with U.N. personnel stuck inside their vehicles, exposed to any artillery shells that might fall.

Human Rights Watch said it was investigating the Yarmouk Martyrs for involvement in past executions, including a videotaped killing of Syrian soldiers which was posted on the Internet on Tuesday.

One video showed rebels with several men in army fatigues they said were captured at a Syrian army base near Jamla. Another video showed 10 dead men, including some of the captives filmed alive in the earlier video.

Peacekeepers of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) mission have been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for four decades.

The U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the seizure of the observers and demanded their immediate release.

“The U.N. observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity at Al Jamla,” the United Nations said, referring to a village which saw fierce clashes on Sunday.

It said the peacekeepers were taken by around 30 fighters.

In one rebel video, a young man saying he was from the Martyrs of Yarmouk brigade stood surrounded by several rebel fighters with assault rifles in front of two white armored vehicles and a truck with “UN” markings.

“The command of the Martyrs of Yarmouk … is holding forces of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force until the withdrawal of forces of the regime of Bashar al-Assad from the outskirts of the village of Jamla,” he said.

At least five people could be seen sitting in the vehicles wearing light blue U.N. helmets and bulletproof vests. “If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners,” the man said.

Syria announced on Thursday it had uncovered an Israeli spy camera monitoring a “sensitive site” on its Mediterranean coast, saying the discovery highlighted Israel's role in the uprising and insurgency against Assad. Israeli officials made no comment on the Syria report.

Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Manuel Mogato in Manila and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Jon Hemming

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