UN Reports Continuing Interactions Between IDF and Armed Groups in Golan

Israeli Forces in the Golan Heights (Feb. 2015) photo: Creative Commons/IDF

Israeli Forces in the Golan Heights (Feb. 2015) photo: Creative Commons/IDF

March 26, 2015 – UN peacekeepers continue to observe interactions between armed groups in the Golan Heights and members of the Israeli Defence Forces.

The information was in the latest report to the Security Council from Ban Ki-moon on the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force monitoring the 1974 ceasefire agreement between Israel and Syria.

“UNDOF observed one occasion in November [2014] and several in January and February when armed individuals crossed the ceasefire line, approached the technical fence [that runs along the length of the Israeli side of the buffer zone] and at times interacted with IDF across the ceasefire line in the vicinity of United Nations observation posts 51 and 54 [see map,]” Ban wrote in the report released this week.

The Al Nusra Front and allied groups control most of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights but are engaged in an ongoing battle with Iran-backed Hezbollah for control of the strategic plateau.

Ban’s report also said that trucks, some mounted with anti-aircraft guns, crossed over to the Israeli side and that packages were loaded onto a number of trucks before returning to the Syrian side. The report added that injured individuals were also transported to the Israeli side.

“In some instances, wounded individuals were handed over from the Bravo [Syrian] side to the Alpha [Israeli] side. During the evening of 20 January, in the area north of observation post 54, UNDOF observed two trucks crossing from the Bravo side to the Alpha side, where they were received by IDF personnel. The trucks were loaded with sacks before returning to the Bravo side,” Ban wrote.

“On at least four occasions in February, United Nations personnel at observation post 54 saw vehicles, including small trucks, crossing the ceasefire line from the Bravo side and approaching the technical fence,” the UN chief added. “On one such occasion, several vehicles, including some with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back, were seen parked next to the technical fence.”

The UNDOF force has seen its size and scope reduced in recent months due to the deteriorating security situation and most of the troops are located on the Israeli side while also manning some key observation posts including on Mount Hermon.

Late last year, Ban recommended reducing the force from its mandated strength of about 900 personnel to less than 750 because of limited capacity and the reluctance of countries to offer troops for the mission. In the past year or so, Austria, the Philippines, Japan and Croatia have all withdrawn their contingents. Currently, troops from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands make up the force.

Recently, a spokesperson for the Czech president’s office said the country has offered troops to replace those departing.

“By sending Czech soldiers to the mission in the Golan Heights and possibly also to the mission in Lebanon, the president (Zeman) wants to not only confront the threat of Islamism, but also reinforce the defense of Israel,” Hynek Kmoníček, head of the foreign affairs section of the Presidential Office, told the daily Mladá fronta Dnes.

However, the spokesperson was corrected by the Czech military’s chief-of staff who said UNDOF’s mission “is not to defend Israel against possible attacks by Islamic militants, given the mission’s mandate and the capabilities of the Israeli forces.”

The report from Ban also said that UN vehicles stolen by Al Nusra are being used by the group and some have been outfitted with anti-aircraft guns.

The full report is below.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Report on UNDOF

Al Nusra Placed Explosives at UNDOF Site, Stole Vehicles, Uniforms

UNDOF
Sept. 15, 2014 – Al Qaeda linked militants have taken over UN positions in Golan, are wearing United Nations blue berets and after taking Fijian troops hostage they surrounded another UN base with explosives to prevent troops from evacuating, detonating one of the explosives.

These are among the details in Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on the beleaguered UNDOF mission in Golan where on Monday the UN evacuated all its troops to the Israeli side of the ceasefire line after the security situation deteriorated even further.

Some 300 militants were involved in the incident where the 45 Fijian troops were taken captive, Ban’s report says. The troops were released on Thursday. The Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that Qatar paid a $20 million ransom to release the peacekeepers.

Ban’s report presents the peacekeepers as essentially operating in an active war zone, caught up in a conflict between armed opposition groups and Syrian armed forces. The IDF have also fired numerous artillery rounds and launched air strikes as a result of firing from the Syrian side into Israel, including dropping several bombs near Camp Faouar, the headquarters for the UN mission in Golan. A number of Syrian government soldiers were killed as a result of Israeli fire.

The report, released on Monday, also says cluster munitions have been used near UN facilities.

Syrian armed forces are operating inside the ceasefire line in breach of the disengagement agreement. There are at least ten tanks belonging to Syrian forces operating inside the zone while armed groups also possess tanks. Both sides are operating checkpoints inside the area, the report, which covers May 29 to Sept. 3, states.

The armed groups are “in control of numerous United Nations armoured vehicles,” and have looted and taken command of facilities that UN troops have vacated.

“The activities of several armed elements, including the al-Nusra Front, in the UNDOF area of operation since late August, and the direct confrontations with United Nations personnel, forced UNDOF to vacate all but one of its positions in the southern area of separation,” the report states [see map]. “Armed opposition groups and other armed groups have gained control of a large part of the area of separation, including a section of the main road connecting  the two UNDOF camps and the crossing between the Alpha [Israeli] and the Bravo [Syrian] sides.”

The report adds that the UN peacekeepers have witnessed several interactions between the Israeli Defense Forces and armed groups.

“Throughout the reporting period, UNDOF frequently observed armed members of the opposition interacting with IDF across the ceasefire line in the vicinity of United Nations position 85. UNDOF observed armed members of the opposition transferring 47 wounded persons from the Bravo side across the ceasefire line to IDF, and IDF on the Alpha side handing over 43 treated individuals to the armed members of the opposition on the Bravo side,” it says.

UNDOF, which costs $64 million per year to run as of 2014, was created in 1974 to observe the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel. It currently has 1,271 troops, including 48 women, from Fiji, Ireland, the Philippines, Nepal, India and the Netherlands.

In his conclusion, Ban writes that “UNDOF will continue to use its best efforts to monitor the ceasefire between Syrian and Israeli forces and see that it is observed, albeit in increasingly challenging and difficult circumstances.” He also calls for greater support from the Security Council who are scheduled to discuss Ban’s report on Sept. 18.

But it appears that the fate of the mission is sealed for now after Monday’s decision to relocate all troops to the Israeli side, essentially ending UNDOF’s mission to operate in the separation zone observing the ceasefire agreement.

The full report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Fijian UNDOF Troops Released

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UNDOF Force Commander Singha Welcomes Back Fijian Troops

Sept. 11, 2014 – Forty-five Fijian troops serving with the UN’s Golan observer mission were released on Thursday after two weeks in captivity.

“Today at 1430hrs local time, the 45 Fijian peacekeepers who had been detained were handed to UNDOF at Position 80,” [see map] the UN spokesperson’s office in New York said in an email to reporters. “All the 45 peacekeepers are in good condition and will proceed back to Camp Foar for medical assessment.”

Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release of the troops who were taken by Al Nusra from Position 27 on August 28th.

“The Secretary-General emphasizes to all parties the impartiality of United Nations peacekeepers. UNDOF is on the ground to monitor the Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria,” his office said in a statement. “The Secretary-General demands that all parties respect UNDOF’s mandate, freedom of movement and the safety and security of its personnel.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Photo: Courtesy of UN Press Office

Council to Meet on UNDOF Sept. 18

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Sept. 3 – The Security Council will receive Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on the UNDOF mission in the Golan Heights on Sept. 12 and is set to meet with peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous over the future of the mission six days later.

Forty-five Fijian UNDOF peacekeepers taken hostage last week by Al Nusra remain in captivity.

Ladsous spoke to reporters at UN headquarters in New York on Wednesday and backed UNDOF force commander Iqbal Singh Singha amid reports that he ordered a Filipino contingent to hand over their weapons to the Al Nusra militants holding the Fijian troops.

He said the Filipino troops were told to “keep their weapons quiet” but not to surrender them.

He added that the Dept. of Peacekeeping Operations is looking at “the way the force is configured.”

The Philippines announced in August that it is withdrawing its troops from UNDOF at the end of September citing security concerns (it is also withdrawing its troops from UNMIL in Liberia over the Ebola outbreak).

Ireland’s Defence Minister Simon Coveney told Morning Ireland on Monday that the Irish government would seek a review of the mission before deciding whether to send new troops when the current contingent end their tour of duty at the end of September.

Ban Ki-moon recommended over a year ago that the force’s self-defense capabilities be enhanced. While the force has received more robust armor, it is understood that both the UN Secretariat and troop contributing countries believe the Security Council has not done enough to ensure UNDOF has the defensive equipment it needs.

Irish troops, along with the Fijian contingent, were deployed after Japanese, Croatian and Austrian troops withdrew last year because of the security situation. Austria had been the longest serving contributor to the mission, having joined UNDOF when it was formed in 1974 to observe the ceasefire agreement between Syria and Israel following the end of the 1973 war.

The Council also increased the size of the force in June last year by about 300 troops. It’s current configuation has over 1,200 troops from six countries.

Ladsous said on Wednesday that in addition to Al Nusrah there are about six or seven other armed opposition groups operating in the area of separation.

In Ban Ki-moon’s report to the Council in June this year, he outlined a number of incidents in which the security of UNDOF troops was threatened. As a result of the security situation, Ban is required to report on UNDOF every three months instead of the usual six.

In his June 2014 report, Ban wrote that armed opposition groups were tailing UNDOF patrols, presumably as protection from Syrian government forces, that two peacekeepers were injured by a tank round on July 7, and that another patrol witnessed members of an armed group walking past its post with a severed head.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Al Nusra Confirms Holding UN Peacekeepers

 

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A photo posted on Twitter by the Al Nusral front showing the UN Fijian peacekeepers abducted from their position in the Golan Heights.

Aug 31, 2014 – The Al Nusra Front have confirmed they have taken hostage UN peacekeepers from Fiji abducted from the UN’s Golan Heights observer mission.

The group said it is holding the peacekeepers hostage “in reply to all crimes committed by the UN against al-Sham since 1974 in protecting the zionist Israeli border, we took 43 UNDOF hostages.”

The UN have said that 44 Fijian troops have been detained. It has not yet said who is holding them hostage.

“Al Nusra is on terrorist list and on sanction list. All we do is offer support for our brothers in Syris. In exchange, we face the UN article 7,” the group said. Article 7 of the UN charter authorizes the use of force to maintain international peace and security.

“We confirm all 43 UNDOF are in a secure place, in good health and receive medical attention,” Al Nusra said.

The UN observer force in Golan was established in 1974 in response to a ceasefire agreement agreement between Israel and Syria following the end of the 1973 war. It patrols a demiltarized zone agreed on both sides.

UN troops were mandated to observe the ceasefire, in the absence of a peace agreement between the countries, and occupy a zone which both sides declared should be demilitarized, according to their disengagement agreement.

Meanwhile, the UN says the 40 Filipino troops pinned down in their position have been vacated following a ceasefire agreed with armed groups.

Some 70 Filipino troops had come under fire in their positions following the abduction of the Fijian troops. Irish troops rescued some 30 of those peacekeepers on Friday. The remaining Filipino were troops engaged in a standoff with armed groups, including Al Nusra, until a ceasefire was arranged.

Fijian Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitogan told the Fiji Times that he has been informed that his troops are safe and have been removed from the Golan by their captives but is unsure of their location. “I am sure sooner or later they will provide a demand to the UN but at this stage we can wait and see what happens in the next few days.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Golan Peacekeepers in Firefight With Al Nusra Front

The town of Quneitra where Al Nusra on Wednesday took control of the crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

The town of Quneitra where Al Nusra on Wednesday took control of the crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

Aug. 30, 2014 – UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights have been engaged in ongoing battles with armed groups including the Al Nusra Front.

Thirty-two Filipino troops were rescued by UNDOF’s Quick Reaction Force when they came under attack at Position 69 [see map] while the UN said there is an ongoing battle at position 68 which has pinned down another Filipino contingent. The UN has pulled its troops from Observation Posts 52 and 56 after firing in the vicinity.

There are no reported casualties among UN forces, the United Nations spokesperson’s office said in an email to reporters.

“UNDOF reports that armed elements also attacked UN Position 68 with mortar and heavy machine gun fire. The UN peacekeepers returned fire and prevented the attackers from entering the position. Position 68 is currently under fire, preventing the personnel from moving out,” the email from the UN spokesperson’s office said.

Forty-four Fijian peacekeepers abducted on Thursday are still being held captive by Al Nusra while some 40 more are surrounded and unable to leave their position.

“The Secretary General strongly condemns the attack today on positions of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and the continuing detention and restrictions of movement on 84 UNDOF peacekeepers from the Fijian and Philippine Battalions by armed non-state actors, including the Al Nusra Front,” the UN said in a statement.

The attacks and detention of peacekeepers comes after months of fighting in the separation zone between armed groups and Syrian government forces as well as firing from Syria into Israel. Israel has returned fire to Syrian Army positions as it holds the government responsible for any firing from their side of the of the zone, though it is not clear if Syrian government forces are in control of their positions.

The Al Nusra Front which has teamed up with other armed groups in the area took control of the Syrian crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday.

The 1,200 UN troops are deployed to observe a 1973 ceasefire between Israel and Syria and are stationed along an 80km long and between 0.5 and 10km wide separation zone which both countries agreed should be free of any military activity.

In Ban Ki-moon’s latest report to the Security Council on the UN’s Golan observer force, he wrote that several different armed groups are operating in the area and these groups possess heavy weapons and at least three tanks. A source told UN Tribune that United Nations vehicles have also been captured by the armed groups in the past few days.

The June report to the Council told of an increasingly dangerous environment for the UN peacekeepers who it said have observed black flags associated with the Islamic State in the separation zone and that in April “two members of the armed opposition displayed the severed head of a presumed Syrian armed forces officer as they passed United Nations Position 80.”

Ban’s next report to the Security Council on UNDOF is due in two weeks. The 1,200-troop mission is considered crucial because of the lack of a peace agreement between Syria and Israel but the recent escalation in attacks on peacekeepers and the abduction of the 44 Fijian troops have put its future in jeopardy with the Filipino government announcing last week that it will pull its 330 contingent at the end of September.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image Credit: “Qunaitra” by Christian Koehn. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.

Fijian Peacekeepers Still Detained, Filipino Troops in Armed Standoff are Rescued

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Aug. 29, 2014 – The UN continues to seek the release of the the Fijian peacekeepers detained in the Golan Heights and on Friday updated the number held hostage to 44.

Meanwhile, Filipino troops who were surrounded by armed elements have been evacuated to the peacekeeping mission’s headquarters in Golan in an operation aided by Irish peacekeepers.

The UN of Friday put the number of Filipino troops trapped at 72.

“Irish personnel secured a route, provided security as UNDOF troops withdrew from a UN position and escorted them to the Force Headquarters in Camp Faouar,” said a statement posted on the Irish Defence Forces website.

It is not yet known if all 72 troops have been evacuated.

The 44 Fijian troops detained by an armed group, believed to be Al Nusra, were first taken to a UN post staffed by Filipino troops, a source who had been briefed on the situation told UN Tribune. There the Filipino troops were threatened and ordered to hand over their weapons. The Filipino contingent managed to escape to another UN position and it is there they were surrounded by the armed elements who had also captured UN vehicles.

The UN is not aware of where the captive Fijian troops are being held or if all 44 are being held at the same location, a source said.

A spokesperson for the UN’s Dept. of Peacekeeping Operations declined to comment citing the sensitive nature of the ongoing situation.

Update: The UN spokesperson’s office late Friday sent the following statement to reporters:

The United Nations has received assurances from credible sources that the 44 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) who were taken from their position on the morning of Thursday, 28 August, are safe and in good health.  UNDOF has not yet had direct contact with these peacekeepers.

“UNDOF has been informed that the intention behind those holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz