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

U.N. says 43 Golan peacekeepers seized by Syria militants, 81 trapped


Militants fighting the Syrian army have detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights and trapped another 81 in the region, and the world body is working to secure their release, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The affected peacekeepers are from the Philippines and Fiji, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

“During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah,” the U.N. press office said in a statement.

It added that another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers were being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah. Dujarric said the 81 trapped troops were from the Philippines and the 43 seized ones from Fiji.

“The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore the full freedom of movement of the force throughout its area of operation,” it said.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the Security Council this month, told reporters the trapped peacekeepers were surrounded by Islamist militants.

The 15-nation Security Council, which was meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria, was also discussing the issue of the kidnapped peacekeepers, Lyall Grant said.

The Philippine army said in a statement that militants and had surrounded the Philippine contingent’s encampments with Fijian hostages in tow and demanded that the Filipino troops surrender their firearms.

“The Philippine peacekeepers held their ground and demonstrated their resolve to defend their positions,” it said. “They did not surrender their firearms as they may in turn be held hostage themselves.”

The Security Council issued a statement strongly condemning the seizure of the peacekeepers and calling for their immediate release. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed the council word's in his own statement of condemnation.

Reporters asked Dujarric if the United Nations was in contact with the group holding the Fijians. He declined to specify who the world body was in contact with but said there was communication under way. “There are contacts being held at different levels, on the mission and on the ground,” he said. “They are talking to representatives of various armed groups that they have … operational contact with. They are talking to countries in the region.”

Dujarric was also asked about the rules for peacekeepers in such situations.

“In extreme circumstances, these troops are trained and prepared and equipped to defend themselves, but, obviously, each situation has to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

FIJI ARMY CHIEF SAYS COMMITTED

U.N. officials say that the peacekeepers, whose job is to monitor the cessation of hostilities, carry small arms that are only to be used in extreme circumstances. In previous situations where UNDOF peacekeepers were held hostage, the troops did not use their weapons.

The Quneitra crossing on the Golan is a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. Syria and Israel technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974.

UNDOF monitors 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. There are 1,223 UNDOF 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 this week 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.

Blue-helmeted U.N. troops were seized by militants in March and May 2013. In both of those cases they were released safely.

Austria, Japan and Croatia have all pulled their troops out of UNDOF due to the deteriorating security situation and spillover from the Syrian war.

But Fijian Army Commander Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga told Reuters in an interview on Friday that he would not be recommending to his government that Fiji follow suit.

“If I was to make any recommendation, I would increase our forces in Syria. That would be my recommendation,” he said by phone from Fiji.

“We will not make any recommendations of pulling out from the U.N. or any other engagement, because our contribution to U.N. peacekeeping – if we don't want to do this, then who else in the world would want to do this?”

He added that he was confident the Fijians would be released soon based on the strength of their contacts in the Golan Heights region.

Additional reporting by Matt Siegel in Sydney and Rosemarie Francisco in Manila; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Tom Brown, Jeremy Laurence and Ken Wills

U.N. says 43 Golan Heights peacekeepers seized by militants


A group of 43 U.N. peacekeepers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have been detained by militants fighting the Syrian army, and the world body is working to secure their release, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The detained peacekeepers are from the Philippines and Fiji, a U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah,” the U.N. press office said in a statement.

It added that another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers were being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.

“The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore the full freedom of movement of the force throughout its area of operation,” it said.

The U.N. Security Council, which was meeting to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, was also expected to raise the issue of the kidnapped peacekeepers, a council diplomat said.

The Quneitra crossing on the Golan is a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. Syria and Israel technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974.

UNDOF monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 45 miles from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. There are 1,223 UNDOF 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 this week 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.

Blue-helmeted U.N. troops were seized by militants in March and May 2013. In both of those cases they were released safely.

Austria pulled its troops out of UNDOF in 2013 due to the escalation of fighting.

Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown

Golan fighting spells more Syria trouble for Israel


Brush fires from stray mortar bombs were still ablaze on the occupied Golan Heights on Friday as Israeli farmers returned to their fields, a day after battles in Syria's civil war reached a U.N.-manned border crossing.

Once the smoke clears, Israel could find itself facing more trouble from multiple threats on its northern front.

On Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces beat back rebels who seized the Quneitra crossing on the Golan, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. The battles sent U.N. peacekeepers to their bunkers and prompted Austria to announce it was pulling its men out of the mission.

Israel is now concerned the entire United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is on the brink of unravelling – a scenario that could bring further escalation along what has been for decades a quiet frontier with Syria.

The peacekeepers, in place under a 1974 disengagement agreement after Israel and Syria fought a second war on the Golan, had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

But their quiet presence has been highly symbolic – an affirmation of a status quo under which the two countries, which last held peace talks 13 years ago, avoided direct conflict that could lead to all-out war.

“If there are no Austrians there is no UNDOF. They were the core force,” an Israeli diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “It will be very hard to find a replacement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, said on Friday that he was willing to send troops to fill in for the Austrians.

On high alert over escalating fighting between Assad's forces and his enemies in the Syrian-controlled parts of the Golan, Israel has started in recent months to adjust its deployment along the front. Shelling and machinegun fire have occasionally spilled over into Israeli-held territory.

The Israeli military has revived once-abandoned outposts on the Golan and sent up regular forces to take the place of reservists. Israeli leaders have spoken particularly of a future threat posed to peace on the Golan by jihadi fighters now battling against Assad's forces.

Israel has launched air strikes on Syria to prevent weapons transfers to arch-enemy Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militant group fighting on Assad's behalf.

However, it has shown few other signs of preparing to intervene in the civil war and has avoided taking sides.

Unlike his Western allies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stopped short of calling for an end to Assad's rule.

Bad news for Assad is generally seen as good news for Israel, which views him as the centre of a network of enemies linking Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah and Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip.

“From a selfish Israeli point of view, what is happening in Syria is a huge positive development for Israel. This axis of radicalism is now broken,” said Amos Yadlin, head of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

But Israel also knows that its enemy's enemy is not necessarily a friend.

“A complete victory by either side would not be an optimal situation,” said Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies. “The current situation is in a way optimal for Israel … and it will most likely go on for months if not years.”

On the Golan on Friday, Israeli firefighters put out brush fires from Thursday's fighting. As gunfire from Syria echoed at times in the distance, Israeli and Druze farmers tended to their cherry orchards. Israeli settlers peered through binoculars and watched shells on the Syrian side send up clouds of smoke.

Along one road, two Israeli soldiers, one of them armed with an anti-tank missile, crouched on the ground, gazing in the direction of Syria.

 

HEZBOLLAH THREAT

Israel has struck inside Syria at least three times in the past few months, each attack against what it believed to be weapons for Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to open a new front against Israel on the Golan.

One senior Israeli official briefed on intelligence said Nasrallah's words seemed to be backed by action.

“Hezbollah appears to be making inroads on the Syrian-held Golan too. This would seem consistent with what Nasrallah pledged. There aren't Hezbollah 'boots on the ground' there yet but the infrastructure is being built,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added that Hezbollah had much to gain from fighting on behalf of its longstanding patron Assad. Hezbollah, he said, was acting under assurances it would be rewarded by Assad in the form of arms transfers.

Hezbollah may be bolstered by its joint victory alongside Assad's forces against rebels in the battle over recent weeks for the Syrian town of Qusair, watched closely in Israel.

“It is our understanding that Qusair was basically a Hezbollah operation, from the planning to the handling of key weapon systems,” the official said. “Hezbollah crews were even operating Syrian T-55 and T-54 tanks there, as well as all significant artillery systems.”

But Hezbollah's involvement in Syria could also have a silver lining as far as Israel is concerned. Another Israeli official said Israeli intelligence assessed that up to 500 of the group's fighters have been killed in Syria.

That estimate was higher than others and Hezbollah itself has not said how many of its men have died in Syria.

Rabi said Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, was losing more than just men in its battles for Assad.

“Hezbollah is losing its legitimisation and prestige. After the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah was hailed in the Muslim and Arab world for carrying the torch in the fight against Israel. But with its entrance into Syria, it has made itself a target for Sunnis in Lebanon and in the entire world,” Rabi said. 

Additional reporting by Ammar Awad in the Golan Heights, Dan williams and Crispian Balmer; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff

Austrian peacekeepers quitting U.N. force amid heavy fighting at Syria-Israel border


Austria withdrew its soldiers from the U.N. peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights following battles between Syrian troops and rebels.

On Thursday, Austria said it would be withdrawing its 380 soldiers — more than one-third of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force that has been stationed on the Golan for 40 years.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry called on the U.N. to maintain security at the border.

“While appreciating Austria’s longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” the ministry said in a statement. “Israel expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974), in virtue of which UNDOF has been established.”

The withdrawal came after rebels and government forces in Syria’s civil war exchanged control of the border crossing between Israel and Syria.

The Quneitra Crossing on the Golan Heights changed hands at least twice Thursday, with the rebels taking the area in the morning and the army of President Bashar Assad retaking control later in the day, according to reports. The crossing is located about 200 feet from an Israeli army post.

A day earlier, the Syrian army and its Hezbollah volunteers captured the strategic town of Qusair on the Lebanon border following a two-week battle.

Following the retaking of Qusair, the Syrian military threatened Israel, saying in a statement that the victory sends a “clear message” to the “Zionist enemy.”

Israeli farmers in the area were instructed to keep away from the crossing area, Ynet reported.

Meanwhile, Israel lodged a complaint with the United Nations over Syria’s use of tanks on the Golan, which violates a cease-fire agreement between the two countries.

Syria fires on Israeli military vehicle, Israel returns fire


Syria fired on and damaged an Israeli army jeep, and Israel retaliated with a missile attack, the Israeli military said.

No one was injured when Syria opened fire on an Israeli army patrol early Tuesday morning in the Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces said. It was the third time this week that Israeli positions were targeted by Syria.

In retaliation, the IDF said an Israeli missile struck the source of Tuesday’s gunfire.

The IDF lodged a complaint with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, a peacekeeping force that was established in 1974.

The Syrian military claimed in a statement issued Tuesday that its military destroyed an Israeli military vehicle and its occupants. The statement said the jeep crossed the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights.

Israeli troops manning a border observation point in the Golan Heights were fired on Sunday and Monday. The Israelis did not retaliate but lodged a separate complaint with the U.N. observer force.

Also Tuesday, Israel transferred an injured Syrian national from the border to a hospital in northern Israel for surgery to treat shrapnel wounds.

Syrian withdrawal from Golan alarms Israel


The Syrian government has reportedly withdrawn thousands of troops near the buffer zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, leaving a power vacuum that Israel is concerned could be filled with jihadist forces ready to turn their guns on the Jewish state.

Syria has redeployed divisions in the Golan to the area around Damascus to battle anti-government forces near the Syrian capital, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian on Sunday.

The redeployment near the Golan border was the most significant in 40 years, Western diplomats told The Guardian. Israel is concerned that the jihadist groups hostile to both Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Jewish state could move to fill the power vacuum in the Golan, creating a battlefront with Israel.

Four elite Syrian divisions made the Golan border Israel’s quietest for the past four decades, but tensions have simmered on the Golan Heights in the last few months. Last week, a mortar shell fired during fighting between Syrian rebels and loyalist troops landed in Israel. Errant explosives have landed several times in Israel-controlled Golan territory, and some cross-border incidents have prompted return fire from Israeli army patrols.

Israel is concerned that Assad’s weapons stockpiles, which include chemical weapons and advanced anti-aircraft missiles systems, could fall into the hands of either Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is loyal to Assad, has links to Iran, and is very hostile to Israel, or Sunni Islamist groups in Syria with links to international terrorist groups, which seek Assad’s ouster and are no friendlier to Israel.

On Sunday, an Israeli colonel told visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird on a helicopter tour of the Golan that Israel is increasingly concerned about foreign, Sunni jihadists who have flocked to Syria to fight Assad, according to Canadian news outlet The Globe and Mail.

To show Baird the difficulty of assessing who is in control in the Golan, the colonel pointed to a Syrian village just beyond the border that is controlled by rebels but surrounded by Syrian troops who have cut off all access roads. When Israeli troops were fired on last month, Israel fired back at the Syrian position. Israel didn't say whether the fire on its troops had come from Assad loyalists or rebels.

Syria’s southern region saw the beginning of the Syrian uprising when protesters took to the streets in Deraa in March 2011, but the Golan region, located just west of the Deraa governorate, remained largely quiet as fighting moved to Syria’s north and east. Now, fighting has returned to the south. Rebel groups took over an artillery base in Syria’s Quneitra governorate near the demilitarized buffer zone in the Golan near Israel in late January. Jordan closed a border crossing with Syria after fighting increased in the Deraa governorate. The United Nations is now predicting that there could be some 1.2 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year. More than half a million people currently reside in Jordanian refugee camps.

The U.S. has reportedly begun training Syrian rebels in order to battle Assad and subvert the increasingly powerful Islamist groups, such as the al-Qaida-aligned Al-Nusra Front, in the Golan, The Guardian reported.

As Syrian troops move out of the Golan, the future of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights is also thrown into question. The states that make up the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights are reconsidering their commitments. Croatia already withdrew its troops last February.

“It’s clear UNDOF is having very serious problems in meeting its challenges,” an Israeli official said, according to the report in The Guardian. “But Israeli national security figures are very skeptical as to the real utility of international forces in dealing with our security issues.”

Israel has contacted the UN’s New York headquarters to discuss possible scenarios should the UN peacekeeping forces in the Golan dissolve, including sending replacements for contingents that pull out, according to the report.

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

U.N. peacekeepers held in Syria reach Israel, military spokeswoman says


U.N. peacekeepers held by rebels for three days in southern Syria and freed at the weekend crossed into Israel from neighboring Jordan on Monday, a military spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman would not comment, however, on a report by an Israeli newspaper that Israeli troops had later escorted the 21 Filipino peacekeepers back to their base along the Syrian frontier with the Golan Heights, which are occupied by Israel.

The peacekeepers, part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that has monitored the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria since 1974, were released on Saturday by rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and taken to Jordan.

The men had been held in the village of Jamla, some 6 miles from the Jordanian border with Syria. The United Nations said they had been captured by 30 rebel fighters.

“I can confirm that they came into Israel today, from Jordan,” the Israeli spokeswoman said of the freed peacekeepers.

It was not immediately clear why the peacekeepers would end up in Israel, but, logistically, it would be safe for them to return to their main command post via Israel.

The spokeswoman refused to comment on the report on the Maariv newspaper's website that Israeli soldiers had escorted the Filipinos by bus from the Jordan border region to their base in the Golan.

The paper said that Israel, already worried about Syria's two-year civil war spilling across its border, was also concerned that the incident with the peacekeepers might lead member countries to pull troops out of UNDOF.

The peacekeepers have helped monitor an enduring though often tense agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, under which Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of forces within 20 km of a disengagement line in the Golan.

Israel captured the strategic Golan plateau from Syria in a 1967 war and later annexed the territory.

There have been a number incidents in which shells from Syria's civil war have landed in Israel since November, the latest as recently as Saturday. None have caused any casualties.

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alison Williams

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