UN demands halt to all military activity on Golan

The UN Security Council demanded a halt to all military activity by the Syrian government and opposition fighters on the Golan Heights.

New York: The UN Security Council demanded a halt to all military activity by the Syrian government and opposition fighters on the Golan Heights and called for stepped-up measures to protect UN peacekeepers who have been caught in crossfire.

A resolution adopted unanimously by the council yesterday, extends the mandate of the UN force monitoring the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights until December 31.

The force, known as UNDOF, was established following intensified firing on the Israel-Syria border after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace.

For decades, the Golan Heights remained relatively quiet, but as the Syrian conflict escalated, it has become a battleground for Syrian troops and armed opposition groups.

"In the last year or so, there have been a number of cases besides coming under fire," the UNDOF commander, Major General Iqbal Singh Singha of India, told reporters on Wednesday.

"There have been cases of abduction, cases of carjackings, weapons snatching, vandalisation of UN property."

Israel has responded on several occasions, and rebels have abducted three groups of UNDOF peacekeepers since March. All were released unharmed after negotiations.

The Security Council agreed with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon`s findings that ongoing military activities by any actor in the area of separation "continue to have the potential to escalate tensions" between Syria and Israel and pose a risk to the local civilian population and UN personnel on the ground.

Britain`s UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant stressed that "UNDOF does play a very important role as a conduit of communication between Israel and Syria, and that is one of the reasons the council is so keen to maintain UNDOF even in a restricted format."

"There is no direct discussion between Israel and Syria. All the messages between the two are done through UNDOF," he added.

Austria announced earlier this month that it would pull out its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member UN force after fighting from the Syrian civil war threatened their positions.

Lyall Grant, the current Security Council president, told reporters yesterday that 500 Fijian troops will replace the Austrians and other soldiers who withdrew, but that will only bring UNDOF`s strength back to about 900.

He said the UN is still looking for countries to provide additional troops to bring the UN force to its authorised level of 1,250 troops and has contacted a number of countries, including in Europe.