Wednesday 28 September 2016

Al-Qaeda rebels dangled victims' heads to goad UN

Official report reveals the full horror of atrocities in Golan Heights, where Irish soldiers were stationed

Published 05/10/2014 | 02:30

Irish members of the UNDOF, left, escorting a convoy of UNDOF vehicles leaving the Syrian side of the Golan Heights into the Israeli-occupied side. Photo: Getty Images
Irish members of the UNDOF, left, escorting a convoy of UNDOF vehicles leaving the Syrian side of the Golan Heights into the Israeli-occupied side. Photo: Getty Images
Smoke billowing from the Syrian village of Khan Arnabeh, near Quneitra during fighting between Syrian forces and rebel fighters. Photo: Getty Images
Simon Coveney

Islamist rebels decapitated prisoners around the United Nations bases near where Irish troops were serving in Syria, a UN report seen by the Sunday Independent reveals.

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The brutal beheadings in the Golan Heights, which have not been reported on, are described as "horrific atrocities" in the report by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The full horror of events that took place around the Irish and other UN troops in the area have so far been kept a closely-guarded secret by the Defence Forces and Government.

Last week, the Irish soldiers' representative association (PDFORRA) called for psychological support services for soldiers returning from Golan, who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress.

However, there was no mention by senior military, Government or the representative association about the horrors the soldiers witnessed during their six-month tour inside Syria at PDFORRA's annual conference in Sligo.

The UN report reveals the jihadists overthrew a Syrian Army position close to UN posts in late April.

UN troops had to stand by powerless as they then apparently murdered and beheaded prisoners.It states: "In the afternoon of April 24, two members of the armed opposition [the UN term for al-Nusra, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda] displayed the severed head of a presumed Syrian armed forces officer as they passed UN position 80."

Position 80 was the headquarters of the Filipino UN contingent that was later rescued with the help of Irish and other UN troops, supported by the Israeli Army, after they came under attack by the jihadis in August.

Aside from the main Irish contingent, which was based several miles way at the UNDOF (UN Disengagement Observer Force) headquarters at Faouar, there were nine other Irish military observers serving in posts around the area. It is not clear if any of them witnessed the decapitation of al-Nusra's prisoners.

Irish troops, armed only with rifles and 12 machin guns mounted on their armoured personnel carriers (APCs), were surrounded by the jihadi army with captured Syrian Army tanks, artillery and multiple rocket launchers. They also planted roadside mines throughout the area and one Irish APC was damaged in a bomb explosion, injuring one soldier.

The Irish contingent is due back in Dublin over the coming days, but details of their homecoming are vague as the Government appears to continue to downplay the dangers into which the soldiers were sent in June last year.

In contrast, the 84 Filipino troops who escaped being captured by al-Nusra returned home last Thursday to a heroes' welcome and a celebration march through the capital, Manila. The Philippines government has said its troops will definitely not be returning to serve with the UN mission, which is now effectively defunct.

The Irish Government made the decision to send the 137-strong, lightly-armed contingent in June last year despite the fact that Austria, Croatia and Japan had withdrawn their troops, totalling over 500 personnel, the previous month in face of the jihadi advance and after the abduction of several UN troops.

One of the lowest points in the UN mission this year concerned the major conflict in which the al-Nusra front overran the remaining Syrian Army positions close to the border with Israel in April. According to Mr Ban's four-monthy report up to June this year, the UN troops witnessed the jihadis using captured tanks to blast the remaining Syrian Army positions.

They then observed the jihadis' black flags flying from these positions. Hundreds of local people, mainly from the minority Druze sect, who have previously been massacred by the jihadis, were seen fleeing the area. The beheadings occurred in the immediate aftermath of this battle, after which the UN observed the jihadis' display of the Syrian officer's severed head.

Commenting on the jihadis' actions, Mr Ban said: "I also once again condemn the horrific atrocities committed by some armed members of the opposition and call upon all parties in the ongoing conflict to respect international humanitarian law.

"I remain deeply concerned by numerous incidents involving UN personnel. I am also gravely concerned about UN positions caught in crossfire."

Defence Minister Simon Coveney has insisted the Irish troops were well equipped for their job as the security element of the otherwise very lightly-armed UNDOF mission.

Mr Coveney said: "In accordance with standard practice in considering any mission, a full in-theatre reconnaissance and threat assessment was completed by the Defence Forces. The then Chief of Staff, having considered the threat assessment, advised the then minister that the proposed Defence Forces contingent had the capacity to discharge their mandate as the Force Mobile Reserve to UNDOF.

"This was factored into the Government's consideration and decision to deploy the contingent. All theatres of operations have an element of risk attached and situations on the ground can change. That is why UN missions are deployed in these areas.

"The role of the mission was to observe and monitor the peace agreement between Israel and Syria. The UNDOF mission was therefore primarily equipped for self-defence purposes and it had no role or mandate in relation to the conflict in Syria.

"The proposed force protection, weaponry etc was the subject of discussions between Ireland and the United Nations and was in accordance with the Statement of Unit Requirements agreed with the United Nations prior to deployment.

"Following the full in-theatre reconnaissance and threat assessment completed by the Defence Forces prior to deployment of the troops, the level of force protection and weaponry proposed was considered adequate for the mission mandate."

The Minister said there was "no decision to withhold information in relation to the ongoing conflict and its impact on UNDOF", adding: "as a matter of practice, we do not generally comment on ongoing Defence Forces operations. The nature and extent of the ongoing conflict in Syria was well known and a matter of public record and media reporting."

The UN Secretary-General's June report shows that from the outset of its six-month tour of duty in March, the second Irish contingent was caught up in the middle of an all-out war. The report says that on March 19, the Israelis carried out air strikes on four locations inside the UN area of operations.

"United Nations personnel at Camp Faouar [where the Irish were based] heard aircraft flying from the west to the east, firing missiles, and then heard four heavy explosions approximately 3km from the camp. United Nations personnel in Camp Faouar went into shelter," the report says.

Strikes from both the Israeli and Syrian air forces and heavy artillery and mortar firing continued unabated over late spring and early summer, with UN posts being struck repeatedly, the report reveals.

"The presence and use of heavy weapons and equipment by the Syrian armed forces continued while armed members of the opposition [al-Nusra] were observed to have additional heavy weapons and military equipment in their possession following the capture of the Syrian armed forces positions," the report adds.

Sunday Independent

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