Syria conflict threatens U.N. troops on Golan ceasefire line

PARIS Wed Dec 5, 2012 12:53pm EST

PARIS (Reuters) - United Nations forces based inside Syria to monitor a longtime ceasefire between Syria and Israel will bring in armor to reinforce their security because of a threat posed by an influx of Syrian rebels, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said.

The U.N. force deployed after the 1973 Middle East war, in which Syria failed to recapture the Golan Heights taken by Israel seven years before and later annexed by the Jewish state in a move never recognized internationally.

Speaking in Paris, peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said a number of countries contributing to the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) had voiced concerns after two Austrian soldiers were shot on November 29 in an area of Damascus where government troops and rebels have been fighting.

"Certain countries are concerned," Ladsous told reporters on Wednesday. "We will reinforce security, most notably with armored vehicles and we plan to send more political advisers to analyze the situation on the ground."

Ladsous said that while there was no plan to reduce the force, the situation in the area had "abruptly" changed dynamics surrounding the 36-year mission as the rebellion against President Bashar al Assad turns ever bloodier.

"The situation in Syria sparked a cascade of insecurity which has had consequences highlighted by the presence of armed groups belonging to the Syrian opposition in the disengagement zones ... There are people being trained that appear a lot like (hardline Muslim) Salafists," he said.

Stray shells and bullets from the internal Syrian conflict have landed on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan ceasefire line in recent weeks and Israeli troops have fired artillery shells into Syria in response.

Ladsous said that UNDOF, which numbers 1,050 soldiers from Austria, the Philippines, India, Japan, Croatia and Canada, had no specific mandate to deal with the escalating violence.

About 800 of the peacekeepers patrol on the Syrian side of the 1973 Golan Heights ceasefire line.

Their mandate is to oversee a dagger-shaped 400 square km (155-square-mile) "area of separation" where Syrian military forces are not allowed, but where Syrian security, police, customs officers and hunters may carry firearms.

(Reporting By John Irish)