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Israeli official: UN talking to Sweden on Golan force

June 13, 2013 1:34 P.M. (Updated: June 14, 2013 2:56 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- UN leader Ban Ki-moon is in exploratory talks with Sweden over plans it could lead a beefed-up peacekeeping force between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, an Israeli official said on Thursday.

"It's in very preliminary stages," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"It hasn't been established yet who agrees, who wants it. The conditions are not clear."

Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Thursday that Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt favored sending troops to the UN Disengagement Observer Force to replace the Austrian contingent.

On Wednesday, Austria started withdrawing its personnel, as Syria's civil war rages around its positions and following attacks and abductions of peacekeepers.

Haaretz said that Bildt would only send Swedes as part of a larger Nordic force from Finland, Norway and Denmark.

"The Swedes want to strengthen UNDOF'S mandate and turn it into a more robust force that would be better able to defend itself if attacked," it wrote.

The Israeli official said "we don't know everything that the Swedes said to Ban, but we know that there are feelers in that direction".

Ban called on Wednesday for better protection for peacekeepers on the Golan and said it was "essential" that the mission remains.

UN troops monitoring the 1974 disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel traditionally only carry small arms.

Ban called on the UN Security Council to consider measures to beef up the force. "These include, as a matter of priority, enhancing the self-defense capabilities of UNDOF," he said in a report.

Diplomats said the improved protection would include more armored cars and body armor, and that the mission would cut back on patrols and perhaps close some observer positions.

The UN Security Council is to meet with troop-contributing countries on Thursday and plans to vote on a new mandate for UNDOF on June 26.

Ban is pressuring Austria to slow down its pullout so he can find replacements.

The Philippines, which has 341 troops in the Golan, is considering its future in the force. A number of Philippine troops have been abducted by Syrian rebel groups in recent incidents.

India is the only other current contributor, with 193 soldiers in UNDOF. The entire force in recent months had numbered just over 900 troops and Austria's withdrawal was a major blow, which Ban said he regretted.

Contingents from Canada, Japan and Croatia have already withdrawn.

Ban said the United Nations is "urgently" seeking reinforcements and that the force should be bolstered to 1,250.

Fiji is sending 171 troops this month, who would replace the Croatian and Japanese contingents, according to the UN report.

Fiji has offered several hundred more soldiers, according to diplomats, but talks are still going on between the government and the United Nations.

As Syria's civil war worsened, Israel has responded to shell and gunfire from the Syrian side, fueling fears of conflict spillover.

Ban said Syria was guilty of a "grave violation" of the ceasefire accord and that Israel was guilty of a "serious violation," warning that mounting tensions could "jeopardize" the agreement that formally separated the two sides following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

He added that because of the Syrian war and the decades-old conflict between the two countries, "under the prevailing circumstances, I consider the continued presence of UNDOF to be essential."

Moscow has offered to send Russian troops to bolster the depleted UNDOF.

But under the terms of the 1974 agreement which established the peacekeeping force, no troops from the five permanent members of the Security Council can participate.

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