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March 7, 2013 11:14 am

Israel Fears UN Will Pull Peacekeepers from Golan Heights

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Israel's Golan Heights in springtime. Photo: Tazpit News Agency.

Israel has expressed concern that the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights may pull out altogether after Syrian rebels snatched 21 UN troops in the cease-fire zone bordering Israel, the French news agency AFP reported on Thursday.

An international negotiating team has been sent to Syria on behalf of the U.N. to secure the release of the 21 peacekeepers taken captive on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Spokesman Farhan Haq told Army Radio on Thursday. “We certainly hope it will be resolved, and the secretary-general and the Security Council are united in calling for the immediate release of the prisoners,” Haq said.

Haq said he did not know how long it would take to free the prisoners.

“This kidnapping is likely to convince countries which participate in this force to bring their troops home, which would undoubtedly create a dangerous vacuum in no man’s land on the Golan,” an Israeli official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Since its creation, this force has fulfilled its mission which was to keep the peace.”

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Israel fears that the departure of the UN troops may leave the cease-fire zone between the Syrian and the Israeli sectors of the Golan Heights open to infiltration by hardline militant groups, AFP reported.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force has been monitoring the cease-fire between Syria and Israel since 1974. The 21 peacekeepers who were taken captive—three officers and the rest enlisted personnel—were in a four-vehicle convoy when they were intercepted by Syrian rebels around noon on Wednesday near Jamlah, in the Daara province, less than 2 miles from the Israel-Syria cease-fire line, said Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos. Most of the peacekeepers were unarmed. They were part of a group of 300 from the 6th Philippine Contingent, led by Lt. Col. Nolie L. Anquillano, which is involved in peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.

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