The UN peacekeeping force on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights said late Wednesday it would drastically cut back activity, fearing more kidnappings like one last week that saw 21 Filipino blue hats grabbed by rebels.
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which has guarded the demilitarized buffer zone between Israel and Syria since 1974, will stop patrols and shut down a number of observation posts, a senior UN diplomat told Agence France-Presse.
It was reported last week that the peacekeepers have already stopped all night patrols.
A number of countries have begun reassessing sending unarmed peacekeepers to the region, which has seen fighting as part of Syria’s ongoing civil war. Last week, 21 peacekeepers from the force were kidnapped by Syrian rebels, who held them for four days.
The soldiers’ ordeal highlighted the risks run by the peacekeepers, who carry only sidearms, by serving in the war-torn area.
Last month, UNDOF reported a member of its team missing from the area, identified by The Times of Israel as Canadian Carl Campeau. The UN and Canadian Embassy have not confirmed the missing man’s identity.
On Wednesday, Croatia’s parliament approved the withdrawal of some 100 peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights amid fears they could be targeted by Syrian government troops fighting the rebels.
Croatian Defense Minister Ante Kotromanovic said the pullout would start “very soon” but refused to specify the date for security reasons.
The withdrawal, which had been proposed by the country’s president, follows reports claiming that Syrian rebels trying to topple Bashar Assad have been armed with Croatian weapons — including machine guns, rifles and anti-tank grenades — in an operation approved by the United States and sponsored by some Arab countries.
Croatian officials have denied the reports and said they have jeopardized the safety of Croatian soldiers serving in UNDOF.
Japan and Canada have also pulled their troops from the area, citing fears troops could wind up in the midst of the fighting.
“There is a risk they will all leave. And if they all leave then the mission is in definite crisis,” a senior UN diplomat told AFP.
The peacekeeping force was put in place as a bulwark against acts of aggressions between Israel and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
“Symbolically, it is very important that UNDOF is there,” the diplomat told AFP. “Because the last thing we want is for the Syrian crisis to spill over into Israel in a dramatic way and start flare-ups and new conflict in the Golan Heights,
The IDF has urged the remaining three UNDOF member-nations — Austria, India and the Philippines — not to abandon the 40-year mission, Channel 2 reported Friday night. New Delhi has said it has no plans to pull out, but Manila is reportedly reassessing its mission.
Earlier in the week Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger rapped both Syria and Israel and hinted at the withdrawal of the country’s troops from the international peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights if the two nations are unable to better secure the border area.
In a letter to the United Nations, the minister explicitly mentions Israel, demanding the UN address Jerusalem with “very clear words” and threaten it with “consequences.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected to make new recommendations regarding UNDOF to the security council next week.
“The mission is having to assess the way it works so that the troops are safe and the most critical roles are carried out,” UN spokesperson Keiren Dwyer told the news agency.
Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.