Attackers briefly abducted three UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, heightening tensions in the ceasefire zone hit by fallout from Syria’s civil war, a top UN official said.
The United Nations is still negotiating with the Philippines about its contingent in the Golan force after its troops were the target of abductions, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said on Thursday.
At least one of the three officers from the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) seized in the early hours of Wednesday was from New Zealand, according to New Zealand media.
“A group of unknown armed men broke into UN Observation Post 52, in the area of separation,” Ladsous told reporters.
Three unarmed UNTSO observers “were taken and held for approximately five hours and were released unharmed,” he added, without giving the nationalities.
The officers “returned safely to UN Observation Post 52” after an intervention by the head of the UN force that patrols the ceasefire zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan.
Ladsous said recent abductions of peacekeepers in the Golan had underlined “the very difficult conditions that now prevail in and around the area of operation” in the ceasefire zone.
It was the third abduction of UN forces in the Golan zone in two months.
Twenty-one Filipino peacekeepers were abducted by Syrian rebels for five days in March. Four more were seized by the same group this month.
The Filipinos were from the UN Disengagement Observer Force, which has monitored a ceasefire between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights since 1974.
UNTSO has about 170 unarmed observers based across the Middle East and one contingent helps UNDOF.
UNDOF has lost contingents from Japan and Croatia in recent months because of the growing security threat.
Some 150 troops from Fiji are set to join the ceasefire force in the coming weeks as a replacement, said a UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The move has been reported by Fiji media.
UNDOF has cut back on patrols and other operations since the abductions and the Philippines and other countries which provide troops to the force of about 1,000 have expressed concern. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has said his country’s contingent could be withdrawn.
“We are in close contact with the troop contributors with a view to retaining their active support because they are crucial,” Ladsous said.