Defence Minister: Golan risk levels 'not acceptable'

Defence Minister Simon Coveney has said that Irish troops deployed as part of the UN mission in the disputed Golan Heights will not be replaced unless the mission is reviewed.

The minister's comments come amid increased tensions in the area in recent weeks and Irish troops' involvement in a number of missions to rescue members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) besieged by armed elements.

Heavy clashes have raged in the area since Syrian rebels captured a border crossing near the abandoned town of Quneitra on Wednesday. One day later, fighters from al Qaida’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front, abducted 45 Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded two Filipino contingents serving in the UN mission that monitors the buffer zone between Israel and Syria.

Members of the Irish armoured rapid response unit to the UN mission, which numbers 130 Defence Forces soldiers, were involved in missions to secure corridors for the Filipino troops in order that they could effect their withdrawal to reinforced positions.

However the Defence Miniser warned today that Irish troops would not be replaced`next month if UN leaders in New York do not agree on strengthening the force’s firepower, command and control, and rules of engagement.

“I’ve made it very clear that I’m not going to continue to commit Irish troops to this mission unless there’s a very fundamental review of how it’s going to operate. Clearly this is no longer a demilitarised zone,” Minister Coveney said.

“We need to get a significant reassurance from the UN, and the Syrian side, that we can operate a mission safely. The risk levels, given what’s happened over the last three days, are not acceptable.”

He said Irish troops in armoured vehicles exchanged fire with rebels on Saturday as they rescued Filipino troops from one of the besieged border posts. The Indian-led, 1,250-member force includes soldiers from Fiji, India, Nepal, the Philippines and the Netherlands.

Mr Coveney said the Irish unit remained on standby for a potential rescue of the seized Fijian troops. Ireland’s current military deployment has been in the Golan Heights since March and is supposed to be replaced by other Irish soldiers next month.

An Irish withdrawal could deal a final blow to the UN mission, which has already seen Austria and Croatia pull their forces last year over fears they would be targeted. The Philippines, meanwhile, has said it would bring home its peacekeepers after their tour of duty ends in October.

Meanwhile clashes in the are continued today with Syrian rebels engaging in battles with government troops.

The fighting was focused around the town of Hamidiyeh in Quneitra province near the disputed frontier with Israel, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides but did not have exact figures.

Syria’s state news agency said the military killed “many terrorists” and destroyed a heavy machine gun in the fighting. The government refers to those trying to oust President Bashar Assad as terrorists.

The 45 Fijians are still being held by a group called the Nusra Front, which today published a statement online that included photos showing what it said were the captured Fijians, along with 45 identification cards.

The group said the men were “in a safe place and in good health”.

The statement mentioned no demands or conditions for the peacekeepers’ release.

The Nusra Front accused the UN of doing nothing to help the Syrian people since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. It said the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the UN’s ignoring “the daily shedding of the Muslims’ blood in Syria” and even colluding with Assad’s army “to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims” through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights.

The group is one of the two most powerful extremist factions fighting in Syria’s civil war, which the UN says has killed more than 190,000 people. However, the Nusra Front has been eclipsed by the Islamic State (IS) group, which broke away from al Qaida earlier this year and has since carved out a proto-state spanning the Syria-Iraq border.

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