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Tuesday 10 December 2019

Release of peacekeepers held by militants may extend Irish Golan Heights mission

Militants stand next to vehicles carrying dozens of held Fijian U.N. peacekeepers before their release, near a U.N. base in Syria
Militants stand next to vehicles carrying dozens of held Fijian U.N. peacekeepers before their release, near a U.N. base in Syria
Fijian U.N. peacekeepers released by al-Qaeda-linked group Nusra Front in Syria on Thursday, gesture from inside a vehicle as they arrive in Israeli-held territory on the Golan Heights

Ralph Riegel and Tom Brady

Irish troops' prospects of staying in the United Nations peace mission on the Golan Heights have been boosted by the release of 49 Fijians, kidnapped two weeks ago.

The 45 Fijians were abducted from an UN post by the al-Qa'ida affiliate, al-Nusra Front, and held captive since August 28.

They were released unharmed yesterday outside another post after successful negotiations involving the UN and escorted to safety in peacekeeping vehicles.

The Irish troops were not involved in the release.

But Defence Minister Simon Coveney said later the release was an important development in the context of the review by the UN of the Golan mission, known as UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force), and, in particular, the question of Ireland's continued participation in the mission.

Mr Coveney has insisted that the safety of the Irish troops is his top priority and has sought assurances from the UN before the government commits to the deployment of a fresh 130-strong contingent of troops, who are due to fly out towards the end of the month.

As part of his campaign for improved security for the troops, the minister has held talks with the under secretary general in the UN's department of peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous.

Mr Coveney said UNDOF was an important mission contributing to the efforts of the international community in the broader region.

"I have been quite clear about Ireland's desire to continue our commitment to the mission, together with insisting that the UN fundamentally review the capacity of the mission to fulfil its mandate, in the light of the ongoing civil war in Syria", the minister added.

Earlier in Cork, Mr Coveney had stressed that Ireland would quit the Golan mission, probably along with Dutch troops, unless specific risk reduction measures were taken.

These are expected to include abandoning exposed UN posts in areas controlled by rebel Syrian factions within the 60km long by 1km wide zone and moving the peacekeepers to positions closer to the Israeli border while also providing heavier weapons to the troops.

At present, the Irish contingent, who act as the force mobile reserve or quick reaction force, is the best equipped in the mission.

Mr Coveney said he was due in New York on September 26 and would visit UN headquarters for an international peacekeeping summit, planned by US vice president, Joe Biden, when he would seek specific guarantees about mission safety.

He held talks with Mr Ladsous this week at an EU defence ministers meeting in Italy and said they discussed in some detail a process, in which Ireland could be re-assured on the management of risk in the UNDOF mission.

He said he made it very clear that they wanted to be helpful to the UN and recognised that Ireland had a pivotal role to play in the mission.

"We would like to stay but will not if they don't make the necessary structural changes to adapt to realities on the ground.

"It was a very constructive meeting and we looked in detail at the mission maps and the location of the UN posts, and the kind of alterations that could be made to reduce risk", he added.

Mandate

The minister said he had also contacted the US and British embassies in Dublin to ensure that increased action against ISIL/Islamic State would not impact on the Golan Heights.

The mandate for the UNDOF mission was drawn up in 1974 when it was intended that the troops would patrol a demilitarised zone between Syria and Israel and has been very successful.

But recently the troops have been plunged into the centre of internal conflict between forces loyal to the Syrian government and rebel factions.

Irish Independent

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