UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council demanded a halt to all military activity by the Syrian government and opposition fighters on the Golan Heights Thursday and called for stepped-up measures to protect U.N. peacekeepers who have been caught in crossfire.
A resolution adopted unanimously by the council extends the mandate of the U.N. force monitoring the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights until Dec. 31. The force, known as UNDOF, was established following intensified firing on the Israel-Syria border after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace.
For decades, the Golan Heights remained relatively quiet, but as the Syrian conflict escalated, it has become a battleground for Syrian troops and armed opposition groups.
"In the last year or so, there have been a number of cases besides coming under fire," the UNDOF commander, Maj.-Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha of India, told reporters Wednesday. "There have been cases of abduction, cases of carjackings, weapons snatching, vandalization of U.N. property."
Israel has responded on several occasions, and rebels have abducted three groups of UNDOF peacekeepers since March. All were released unharmed after negotiations.
The Security Council agreed with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's findings that ongoing military activities by any actor in the area of separation "continue to have the potential to escalate tensions" between Syria and Israel and pose a risk to the local civilian population and U.N. personnel on the ground.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant stressed that "UNDOF does play a very important role as a conduit of communication between Israel and Syria, and that is one of the reasons the council is so keen to maintain UNDOF even in a restricted format."
"There is no direct discussion between Israel and Syria. All the messages between the two are done through UNDOF," he added.
Austria announced earlier this month that it would pull out its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member U.N. force after fighting from the Syrian civil war threatened their positions.
Lyall Grant, the current Security Council president, told reporters Thursday that 500 Fijian troops will replace the Austrians and other soldiers who withdrew, but that will only bring UNDOF's strength back to about 900. He said the U.N. is still looking for countries to provide additional troops to bring the U.N. force to its authorized level of 1,250 troops and has contacted a number of countries, including in Europe.
The Security Council stressed the need to enhance the safety and security of peacekeepers and endorsed the secretary-general's recommendation to enhance the forces' self-defense capabilities.
UNDOF peacekeepers currently carry only sidearms, and Lyall Grant said they will be given heavier weapons. Other diplomats said these will include hand-held machine guns as well as body armor for greater protection.
Singha, the UNDOF commander, said the mission has reduced its "operation footprint" and done away with night patrolling temporarily.
In addition, some U.N. observation posts are being closed and others are being strengthened, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because details have not been made public.
Associated Press Writer Alexandra Olson contributed to this report from New York