United Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines cross to the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on June 12, 2013
United Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines cross the Israeli army crossing at Quneitra to the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on June 12, 2013. UN leader Ban Ki-moon is in exploratory talks with Sweden over plans it could lead a beefed-up peacekeeping force between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, an Israeli official said on Thursday. © Menahem Kahana - AFP
United Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines cross to the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on June 12, 2013
AFP
Last updated: June 13, 2013

UN talking to Sweden on Golan force, says Israeli official

The UN is in exploratory talks with Sweden about its participation in a beefed-up peacekeeping force between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Swedish and Israeli officials said on Thursday.

The UN has asked Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt whether the Scandinavian country would consider sending troops to the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) after Austrian troops have begun withdrawing as a result of attacks and abductions of peacekeepers.

"We've been in touch with the UN secretariat, they're sending out feelers to different countries," a spokesman for Bildt, Erik Zsiga, told AFP.

"No formal request has been issued yet (from the UN), so it's too early to say" how Sweden will respond, he added.

Bildt himself meanwhile told Swedish Radio that Sweden was "consulting with other countries".

"It's in very preliminary stages," an Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"It hasn't been established yet who agrees, who wants it. The conditions are not clear."

Zsiga denied however reports in Israeli daily Haaretz on Thursday that Sweden was involved in negotiations on the force's mandate and make-up.

Haaretz said Bildt would only send Swedes as part of a larger Nordic force from Finland, Norway and Denmark.

"The Swedes want to strengthen UNDOF's mandate and turn it into a more robust force that would be better able to defend itself if attacked," it wrote.

"It's not as Haaretz is claiming, Sweden is not involved in negotiations about the mandate or composition of the force," Zsiga said.

Norway's defence ministry told news agency NTB that Oslo had also been approached by the UN, but that no decision had been taken yet.

Finland on Thursday meanwhile ruled out taking part in UNDOF.

"Our foreign minister has discussed the issue with the UN, and Finland has informed the UN that we aren't able to send troops to UNDOF to replace those Austria is withdrawing," a spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, Paeivi Harju-Heikkilae, said.

"The issue will still be further discussed later this week (to see) if there is a possibility to increase the troops for UNTSO," a separate UN force, she said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that the UN is "urgently" seeking reinforcements for UNDOF and that the force should be bolstered to 1,250 troops, from the current 900.

UN troops monitoring the 1974 disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel traditionally only carry small arms.

Ban called on the UN Security Council to consider measures to beef up the force. "These include, as a matter of priority, enhancing the self-defence capabilities of UNDOF," he said in a report.

Diplomats said the improved protection would include more armoured cars and body armour, and that the mission would cut back on patrols and perhaps close some observer positions.

As Syria's 26-month-old civil war has worsened, Israel has responded to shell and gun fire from the Syrian side, fuelling fears of conflict spillover.

On Wednesday, Austria started withdrawing its personnel, as Syria's civil war rages around its positions and following attacks and abductions of peacekeepers.

Contingents from Canada, Japan and Croatia have already withdrawn, and Ban is pressuring Austria to slow down its pullout so he can find replacements.

The Philippines, which has 341 troops in the Golan, is considering its future in the force. A number of Philippine troops have been abducted by Syrian rebel groups in recent incidents.

India is the only other current contributor, with 193 soldiers in UNDOF.

Fiji is sending 171 troops this month, who would replace the Croatian and Japanese contingents, according to the UN report.

Fiji has offered several hundred more soldiers, according to diplomats, but talks are still going on between the government and the United Nations.

The UN Security Council is to meet with troop-contributing countries on Thursday and plans to vote on a new mandate for UNDOF on June 26.

Ban said Syria was guilty of a "grave violation" of the ceasefire accord and that Israel was guilty of a "serious violation," warning that mounting tensions could "jeopardise" the agreement that formally separated the two sides following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

He added that because of the Syrian war and the decades-old conflict between the two countries, "under the prevailing circumstances, I consider the continued presence of UNDOF to be essential."

Moscow has offered to send Russian troops to bolster the depleted UNDOF.

But under the terms of the 1974 agreement which established the peacekeeping force, no troops from the five permanent members of the Security Council can participate.

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