UN troops flee across Golan border into Israel to escape Syrian rebels

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Armed rebels seen at Syria's Quneitra border crossing to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) Read more: UN troops flee across Golan border into Israel to escape Syrian rebels
Armed rebels seen at Syria’s Quneitra border crossing to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) 

 

UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeepers in the Golan Heights fled Syrian territory for the Israeli-controlled Golan on Saturday after their positions were attacked by rebel forces.

An Israeli military spokesman confirmed that a number of UN peacekeepers entered Israel. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing military guidelines.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many peacekeeping soldiers fled into Israeli territory. Earlier in the day, the Philippine defense chief said that Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights were attacked by Syrian rebels, who are also holding dozens of Fijian troops hostage.

Clashes continued in the area through Saturday.

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Filipino Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin

Filipino Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters Saturday in a series of text messages that Filipino troops manning one UN encampment have been “extricated,” while soldiers in another encampment were “now under attack.”

Asked if there was a fresh firefight Saturday, Gazmin replied: “Yes.”

He said the clash took place at “6 a.m., Syria time,” and added that “morale is high” among the troops.

Israel Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala later told AFP that “there is still an ongoing standoff but there was a firefight earlier today.”

“All our troops are safe,” he said, adding that the defense minister and head of the military were monitoring developments. He declined to elaborate further on the incident.

Activists and officials confirmed to AP that clashes had erupted between al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels and UN peacekeepers in the Golan Saturday, after the militants surrounded their encampment.

They also said other UN peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, they said.

The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing — located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights — on Wednesday, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers.

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The 35 Filipino UN peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment were extracted on Saturday morning, with the assistance of Irish peacekeepers who rushed to the scene, said officials.

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The Nusra Front also surrounded the nearby Rwihana and Breiqa encampments, where other UN peacekeepers were holed up.

The gunbattle began early Saturday at the Rwihana base some 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometers) from Quneitra, where 40 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by Nusra fighters who were ordering them to surrender, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Abdurrahman, whose information comes from a network of activists throughout Syria, said he was not aware of any fatalities among the 40 Filipino peacekeepers in the Rwihana encampment as sporadic fighting continued throughout the day.

The 35 Filipino UN peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment were extracted on Saturday morning, with the assistance of Irish peacekeepers who rushed to the scene, said officials.

The Irish U.N. peacekeeper battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, evacuated all the Filipino UN peacekeepers on Saturday morning, said a military official.

He said there was no shooting involved, and no injuries. He said that the Irish battalion also evacuated another base on Friday but provided no further details.

Gazmin confirmed that peacekeepers from his country were “extricated.” The Philippine military said there were 35 Filipino troops in the encampment.

It was not immediately clear which rebel group was holding the Fijian UN peacekeepers, although it was likely to be the Nusra Front, said Syrian activist Abdurrahman.

The Nusra Front has recently seized hostages to exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.

The situation of the peacekeepers, tasked with monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel, remains “very, very fluid,” the U.N. secretary-general’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters Friday at the UN headquarters in New York.

The UN said in a statement that it had received assurances from credible sources that the Fijian peacekeepers “are safe and in good health.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the detention of the Fijians and called for their immediate release.

The U.N. mission, known as UNDOF, has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

Various rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.

Also Saturday, a Syrian activist released a video showing extremists from the Islamic State group opening fire and killing dozens of men stripped down to their underwear.

The men in the video were likely those who were captured after the extremists overran a Syrian airfield on Sunday; Syrian soldiers who were stuck behind front lines after the northeastern Tabqa air base fell to the Islamic State group.

The video, released by an activist who uses the name Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, corresponded with The Associated Press reporting of the event. It matched a series of other videos that were released since Wednesday. One video showed the men being held in a concrete-floor room; another showed the men forced to march through a barren landscape in their underwear, herded like sheep. Another showed their seemingly lifeless bodies in piles on the ground.

The British-based Observatory earlier said around 120 captive government troops from Tabqa were killed near the base.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.

The Islamic State group uses violence and images of violence, from mass-killings to beheadings, to instill fear in its opponents and win recruits as it seeks to expand a proto-state it has carved out in Syria and Iraq.
Earlier Saturday, a spokeswoman for President Benigno Aquino said he was “keeping a close watch” on the fate of the troops who were serving as part of the peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.

The Syrian rebels have seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers and demanded that the Filipino troops manning two separate UN encampments surrender their weapons, but they have refused.

The Philippine military earlier said there were 75 besieged troops but the UN later said there were only 72.

The head of Filipino troops on UN missions Colonel Roberto Ancan said in Manila on Friday that “we can use deadly force in defense of the UN facilities.”

Meanwhile, Fiji military officials confirmed Saturday that they no longer know the whereabouts of its peacekeepers captured by al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.

“Their whereabouts at this stage, unfortunately, I cannot confirm,” Brigadier Mosese Tikoitoga told reporters after speaking to the head of the UN team negotiating for their release.

“They confirmed that our men are safe and they are all well. [But] they have been moved to a location out of the bombardment range of any security forces or the Syrian security forces.

“It is out of the UN territory. But again it’s the word of the group. We’ve got no verification what so ever, no communication but we’re only relaying the message that was delivered to us by the negotiators.”

Australia’s foreign minister on Saturday condemned the detention of the peacekeepers.

“Australia condemns the detention … of 44 Fiji peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by armed groups,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement. “As a member of the UN Security Council, Australia demands the unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers.”

The situation of the peacekeepers, whose mission monitors a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel, remained “very, very fluid,” the UN secretary-general’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Friday at the UN headquarters in New York.

The UN said in a statement it has received assurances from credible sources that the Fijian peacekeepers “are safe and in good health.”

The statement added that they had been informed “the intention behind holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection.”

Bishop said she had telephoned Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola to express Australia’s strong support, including Australia’s intelligence resources, for Fiji at this difficult time.

Bishop also said she assured them that Australia will use its position on the UN Security Council to maintain focus on this issue.

The Fijians were captured on Wednesday when armed Syrian rebels linked to the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, stormed a Golan Heights crossing.

The soldiers are serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force stationed in a buffer zone to monitor a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.