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UN seeks to beef up Golan Heights observer mission to face Austrian withdrawal


13:14, June 08, 2013

UNITED NATIONS, June 7 (Xinhua) -- The United Nations, in the face of Austria's withdrawal from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, was scrambling Friday in an effort to keep the mission alive, notwithstanding an offer from Russia.

Britain Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the UN Security Council this month, said there was no question of withdrawing the observer mission even if he did describe the situation as "dangerous."

Asked just how bad the situation was, he replied, "I think we're in a serious situation and we need to work together to try and protect the mission from collapsing."

Austria said earlier in the week that it would pull its approximately 300 peacekeepers out of the mission in the Golan Heights, a key communications link between Syria and Israel.

Moscow offered to replace them Friday.

As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, however, Russia is barred from participating in UNDOF under an accord between Israel and Syria reached after their 1973 war, a UN spokesman said.

Austria said it was too dangerous for its troops to continue in the observer mission, long considered a rather docile assignment. A force of 1,250 is authorized, but its current strength numbers are only at about 900-1,000.

The UN Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO) was confident that a solution could be found soon, Lyall Grant said, suggesting the enabling UNDOF resolution, up for renewal on June 26, could be rewritten to reflect the increased importance of the mission, instead of merely being renewed.

"All member states were united in expressing their concern at the resurgence of fighting and of the prospect of troop withdrawals from the UNDOF mission," he told reporters.

"Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission even if it is temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate because everyone felt that UNDOF played a key role in guaranteeing the 1974 ceasefire disengagement agreement," he said.

The British envoy said that the UN mission has been "acting as a conduit of communications, including in the last few days, between Israel and Syria" and "an important symbol of the stability across the Israel-Syrian border."

"It is dangerous and it is much less than ideal, but I think it would be even more dangerous to withdraw the force entirely and all 15 members of the Security Council are united on the need for UNDOF to try to continue its mission as best it can, but at the same time everyone urged DPKO to accelerate its consultations and try and get some new forces into the region as soon as possible," he said.

Since the Austrian notice of withdrawal and Russia's offer of troop replacements, it has been pointed out that the Israel-Syria accord barring permanent members of the council was drawn up at the height of the Cold War and that times have changed. This opens the possibility that there may be a legal way around it or of even rewriting the agreements establishing UNDOF.

Lyall Grant saw a two-stage solution, beginning with a big first step.

He said DPKO is first looking to "engage with other potential troop contributors, existing ones who already have troops there to see whether they are willing to increase their troops in order to backfill the Austrian troops that will be withdrawing."

At the same time, he said, DPKO would be "looking at the possibility of new troop contributors and getting them in to the theater as soon as possible."

Simultaneously to all that, the council president said, the United Nations is trying to encourage Austrians "to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other current troop contributors from withdrawing troops."

The second stage, he said, is that "DPKO will be putting to the Security Council, over the next couple of weeks, options, in the longer term, and in advance of the mandate renewal on June 26, for how the mandate needs to possibly be strengthened, amended, changed, in the light of the current circumstances."

Lyall Grant said such change was necessary "because it is clear that, with the fighting going on in Syria, and the prospect of it continuing for some time yet, the current mandate for UNDOF is not able to be properly fulfilled."

As for the Russian offer, he said many countries welcomed it, but would not identify them.

"It was also raised that actually it would not be possible under the existing 1974 ceasefire agreement for any troops from P5 countries to be part of UNDOF and if that were to change it would need the agreement of both the signatories to the 1974 agreement, that is Israel and Syria," the council president said.

He said the UN Secretariat would decide whether it is legally possible if both sides agree.

"So I don't think it is an immediate prospect but obviously it's good that Russia has made this offer alongside others," Lyall Grant said.

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