UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations said Monday it has withdrawn its peacekeepers from many positions on the Golan Heights because of escalating fighting in the war between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters.
The situation has deteriorated severely over the last few days and advances by armed groups posed "a direct threat to the safety and security of the U.N. peacekeepers" along the Syrian side of the border and in Camp Faouar where many troops are based, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. He said all troops in those areas have been relocated to the Israeli side of the border.
The U.N. decision follows the two-week abduction of 45 Fijian peacekeepers, who were released last week. They had been captured on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights by fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
The 1,200-strong U.N. force has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. For nearly four decades, U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the spillover from the Syrian war has led to the abduction of peacekeepers four times since March 2013, made troop contributors wary, and led several countries to withdraw their soldiers.
The peacekeepers were withdrawn over the weekend and are currently at Camp Ziouani, the major U.N. base on the Israeli side, a U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told The Associated Press earlier that he doesn't think every single post has been vacated.
"But obviously the situation has deteriorated across a wide span of the territory so we've had to leave from a lot of places," he said.
Dujarric said the U.N. mission "continues to use all available assets to carry out its mandated tasks in this exceptionally challenging environment."
The Fijian troops were captured Aug. 28, a day after militants seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad's troops. Two groups of Filipino peacekeepers were also trapped at separate U.N. encampments that day, surrounded by rebel fighters who demanded they surrender. They refused, and both groups eventually escaped — one busting out with the help of Irish colleagues, and the other by slipping away under the cover of darkness.
For the Philippines, the August incident was the third time its peacekeepers got caught up in the Syrian violence.
Twenty-one Filipino peacekeepers were abducted in March 6, 2013 by the Syrian rebel group Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which held them for three days. Another group of four Filipinos was abducted by the Yarmouk rebels in May 7, 2013, and released five days later.
In another abduction, armed men broke into a U.N. outpost in the buffer zone on May 15, 2013, and captured three unarmed military observers from the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization. They were held by the Syrian men for about five hours and released.
Despite the spillover of the Syrian conflict into the Golan, U.N. officials and diplomats have insisted that the role of the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNDOF is crucial to Middle East stability.
The United Nations had previously withdrawn troops from several vulnerable positions in the Golan Heights, and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous had strengthened the force with armored equipment and other military hardware. The mission had reduced some patrols, but there has been no move to alter its mandate.
Dujarric said last week that the mandate is up for renewal soon and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will send Security Council members his report on the mission, giving council members a chance to assess the situation.