Efforts are under way to secure the release of 43 UN peacekeepers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights who have been detained by militants fighting the Syrian army.
The detained peacekeepers are from the Philippines and Fiji. There are 130 Irish soldiers in the 1,220-strong United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) deployed to the Golan Heights but a spokeswoman for the Defence Force said no members of the Irish Army were among those captured.
“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 UN press office said in a statement.
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Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said two UN posts in the area, which were manned by Fijian soldiers, had been effectively overrun by militants.
The soldiers had been disarmed and detained, he said, adding that other UN posts in the area had been threatened by the militants. He said his information was that the captured UN soldiers were still alive.
He said an Irish mobile unit had been sent to protect one of the larger UN-bases in the area.
The Minister said the deployment of Irish troops in the Golan was now under review as the mission had changed from one of peacekeeping between Israel and Syria to UN soldiers getting caught in a cross-fire in the Syrian civil war. “That is not acceptable.”
“The extent of what has happened over the last 24 hours will cause us to review the overall mission when this immediate issue is resolved,” the Minister told RTE radio.
He said if Irish troops withdrew from the mission it was likely that it would collapse. “I wouldn’t make that decision lightly.”
The deployment of Irish soldiers is a political one and the decision to withdraw the troops before the end of the mission is one of the Minister and the Government.
According to the UN 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 UN 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 (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.
The force’s personnel come from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. The United Nations said this week that the Philippines had decided to pull out of UNDOF, and from a UN force in Liberia, which is struggling with an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
Blue-helmeted UN 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.