UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council called on the Syrian government and rebel fighters Wednesday to ensure the safety and freedom of movement of the U.N. peacekeeping force that has monitored a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.
Council members underscored the increased risk the conflict poses to U.N. personnel, highlighted by the recent hostage-taking of 21 peacekeepers by armed opposition elements. There has also been firing directed at U.N. personnel and facilities, and the carjacking of U.N. vehicles.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the council Tuesday that in response to these incidents the U.N. force has had to reduce its "footprint" on the Golan Heights, cutting back patrols and adopting a "much more static" role. In addition, the U.N. has increased protection for the force, bringing in more armored cars and personal equipment, he said.
The Security Council welcomed the provision of additional security measures for the peacekeepers and reiterated the need to continue enhancing their safety in response to new threats, including by temporarily allowing their arrival and departure through an alternate route.
The U.N. monitoring mission, known as UNDOF, was set up in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the Golan Heights and a year after it managed to push back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory in another regional war.
For nearly four decades, the U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria but in recent months the conflict has spilled into the Golan Heights. Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan and Israeli warplanes struck inside Syria in January.
The council expressed "grave concern" at the presence of the Syrian army and opposition fighters in the area of separation between Israel and Syria, at violations of the disengagement agreement. It expressed "deep concern" at the risk that all military activities in the area of separation pose to the long-held ceasefire and the local population.
Council members called on all parties "to respect UNDOF's freedom of movement and the safety and security of its personnel," while stressing that the primary responsibility for safety and security on the Syrian side rests with the Syrian government.
Ladsous said that two years after the Syrian conflict began, "one must more than ever call for the respect of the neutrality, the safety and the security of U.N. personnel, and this applies to all concerned."
The peacekeeping chief stressed that UNDOF will remain in the Golan Heights and said he is talking to a new of countries about supplying troops for the force to replace contingents that have left, including Croatia and Japan.
More than ever, Ladsous said, "it appears that the disengagement agreement of 1974 remains a very important element of the stability in that part of the world, and it has to be upheld."