A Canadian working for the United Nations in Syria has gone missing, believed to have been abducted by a militant organization operating in the south of the war-torn country.
He disappeared on or about Feb. 16 while travelling near the Golan Heights, said a European-based former colleague and friend who spoke to The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the media.
A spokesman for the United Nations would only confirm that one of its staff members was missing from the area. Eduardo Del Buey, deputy spokesman for the Secretary-General, told reporters in New York on Tuesday that he could not elaborate further, not identifying the UN agency for which the Canadian was working.
The former colleague and Western diplomats in the area say they are certain the man was abducted by parties unknown and that a cone of silence has descended over the United Nations and the Canadian government as attempts are made to negotiate his release.
The man had recently been moved from Damascus to the area near the Golan Heights for "security reasons."
"They thought Damascus had become too dangerous," the friend said, adding that, in a telephone conversation just three weeks ago, the Canadian "told me things were very quiet and that there was nothing to fear."
Recently, the Syrian military has withdrawn many of its forces from the area, reportedly to buttress the Assad regime's defences around Damascus, and leaving the southern district mostly to rebel forces.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an opposition organ, reported fighting Tuesday in Juba and several other towns situated on the Syrian side of the 1974 demarcation line, while Al-Watan, a pro-government Syrian newspaper, said government forces battled "terrorists" in the town of Khan al-Sheh.
Syrian state television also reported that a UN employee went missing under mysterious circumstances in the Golan area.
Canadian officials say that the United Nations is handling the file of the missing man, though an unnamed official told The Canadian Press that a special group had been set up in Ottawa to investigate the matter, as is normal in such a situation.
Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat, was abducted in Niger in 2008 while on a UN mission and only freed 130 days later.
Reached Tuesday in Florida where he is vacationing, Mr. Fowler said he doesn't blame the UN for refusing to talk about the abduction. "I have to say that I agree with the policy which holds that keeping a tight lid on such things is almost always better in terms of securing a happy outcome," he said.
There are great debates, however, about the most effective way to handle the situation. The UN staff members who contacted some members of the media Tuesday to tell them about the abduction said they were doing so out of concern for the missing Canadian's safety.