By Louis Charbonneau and Alissa de Carbonnel
UNITED NATIONS/MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Friday it could not accept Russia's offer to replace peacekeepers from Austria in the Golan Heights because an agreement between Israel and Syria bars permanent members of the Security Council from the U.N. observer mission.
The United Nations expressed appreciation for the Russian offer, made on Friday by President Vladimir Putin after Austria said it would recall its troops from a U.N. monitoring force due to worsening fighting in Syria.
Austria, whose peacekeepers account for about 380 of the 1,000-member U.N. force monitoring a four-decade-old ceasefire between Syria and Israel, said it would pull out after intense clashes between Syrian government forces and rebels on the border.
Russia is a longtime ally and arms supplier to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are fighting rebels trying to overthrow him in a civil war.
The fact that Russia has been backing Assad means Russian troops might not be seen as neutral by Syria's rebels, which could invite opposition attacks on the U.N. Golan force, a diplomat said.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said it was impossible at the moment for the United Nations to accept the offer from Russia, which along with the United States, Britain, France and China is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the 15-nation Security Council.
"We appreciate the consideration that the Russian Federation has given to provide troops to the Golan," he told reporters.
"However, the Disengagement Agreement and its protocol, which is between Syria and Israel, do not allow for the participation of permanent members of the Security Council in UNDOF," Nesirky added, referring to the peacekeeping contingent known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the Security Council this month, said after a special council session on the UNDOF crisis that the force should remain in place, even if its numbers were temporarily reduced.
The U.N. peacekeeping department is asking the other countries in the force, the Philippines and India, if they would increase their troop contributions and was also looking at the possibility of new countries sending troops, Lyall Grant said.
"At the same time (they are) trying to encourage the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other troop contributors from withdrawing troops," he said. U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous had talked about increasing the force back to its mandated figure of 1,250, Lyall Grant said.
'TIMES HAVE CHANGED'
One council diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Ladsous had made clear while briefing the council behind closed doors that allowing Russian peacekeepers might be too complicated legally and he would prefer to find other troop contributors.
Fiji has said that it will send troops to replace a Croatian contingent that has already pulled out. Japanese troops have also been withdrawn because of the violence.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said his country was well aware of the limitation in the document signed four decades ago, which is why Putin had said it would depend on whether countries in the region - namely Syria and Israel - and the United Nations, wanted Russian troops there.
"We believe that times have changed," Churkin told reporters, adding that it was theoretically possible to amend the protocol that bars permanent council members from UNDOF.
"The document was signed 39 years ago at the height of (the) Cold War and the whole context of the (Arab-Israeli) war in 1973," he said. "Now the context is completely different and UNDOF seems to be in dire straits. So we are offering essentially to rescue UNDOF."
He said U.N. legal experts had been asked to look at whether a new resolution would be needed if the Russian offer of troops was taken up because the original agreement to create UNDOF did not allow permanent council members to contribute.
The departure of the Austrians is the latest blow to the monitoring force. In addition to the increased fighting in its zone of operation, there have been several recent incidents in which Syrian rebel forces have detained UNDOF monitors.
Since 1974, UNDOF has had the task of monitoring the "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. The force has helped keep the area relatively stable, U.N. diplomats say.
Russia has been trying along with Western powers to bring the warring sides in Syria together for talks on a solution to a conflict that has lasted more than two years. A planned Geneva peace conference has been delayed until July at least.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Will Dunham, David Brunnstrom and Lisa Shumaker)