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UN battles to reinforce Golan peacekeeping force

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The United Nations scrambled Friday to find fresh troops for its beleaguered Golan Heights peacekeeping force, which Russia said is in "dire straits" as it offered to help.

President Vladimir Putin said Russian troops could replace almost 380 soldiers that Austria says it will withdraw from the ceasefire zone between Israel and Syria because of the increased danger from the Syrian civil war.

But the United Nations replied that no troops from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council could take part in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) under the 1974 accord that set it up.

UN peacekeeping officials told emergency Security Council talks that they were trying to persuade remaining countries in UNDOF -- the Philippines and India -- not to withdraw and even to increase their contingents, diplomats said.

It is also trying to persuade Austria to slow down its withdrawal.

"I think we are in a serious situation and we need to work together to try and protect the mission from collapse," said Britain's UN ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, Security Council president for June, after the talks.

The pullout of the 377 Austrian troops will leave UNDOF with just 341 troops from the Philippines and 193 from India. Japan and Croatia have also withdrawn in recent months as battles between Syrian government and opposition forces spread into the ceasefire zone.

The Philippines has said it is considering its future in UNDOF.

Putin said Russia was ready to replace all of the Austrian troops.

"We appreciate the consideration that Russia has given to provide troops," said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky before laying out the terms of the 1974 accord that precludes Russia, the United States, France and Britain from taking part in UNDOF.

Any such move by Russia would also need the agreement of Damascus and Israel, which is increasingly worried that the Syria conflict will spill over onto its territory.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to UN leader Ban Ki-moon about Putin's offer on Friday. Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin explained the offer to the Security Council.

Churkin said the United Nations should rethink the ban on troops from the major powers in the UN force.

He said the ceasefire accord to halt the 1973 war between Syria and Israel "was signed 39 years ago at the height of Cold War and the whole context of the war of '73. Now the context is completely different and UNDOF seems to be in dire straits," said Churkin.

"We are offering essentially to rescue UNDOF," he added.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that discussions with troop contributing countries are being held to find a replacement for the Austrian contingent.

UN officials said, on condition of anonymity, that they were in talks with at least one other country on top of Russia. They also hoped to get UNDOF back to its maximum permitted level of 1,250 troops.

British ambassador Lyall Grant said that UNDOF was in a "dangerous" position but the Security Council considered it crucial for the mission to stay.

He said that the UN peacekeeping department was looking for new contributors and for existing countries to increase their contingents.

At the same time, the UN was "trying to persuade the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other troop contributors from withdrawing troops."

The Security Council is due to renew the UNDOF mission for another year in June and Lyall Grant said its mandate could be strengthened to help the very lightly armed troops defend themselves.

tw/vlk

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130607/un-battles-reinforce-golan-peacekeeping-force