U.N. peacekeepers taken captive in Golan Heights in Syria

 


McClatchy Foreign Staff

An armed group that’s fighting Syrian government forces captured 43 United Nations peacekeepers Thursday on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and another 81 peacekeepers were being confined to their positions, the U.N. said.

The incident came a day after rebel fighters, said to include members of the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, seized the Quneitra crossing point at the border with the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

A U.N. statement Thursday said that “during a period of increased fighting” between opposition and Syrian government forces in the Golan that began Wednesday, “43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group” near the town of Quneitra.

It wasn’t immediately clear which rebel group was holding the peacekeepers.

Another 81 peacekeepers “are currently being restricted to their positions” near the villages of Ruwayhinah and Burayqah, the statement said.

“The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers and to restore the full freedom of movement of the force throughout its area of operation,” it said.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the captured peacekeepers were from Fiji and that those confined to their positions were from the Philippines.

“The situation is very fluid,” he said. “Obviously, we are very concerned.”

“We are dealing with non-state armed actors,” Dujarric added. “The command and control of these groups is unclear. We’re not in a position to confirm who is holding whom. Some groups self-identified as being affiliated with al Nusra. However, we are unable to confirm it.”

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement demanding the “unconditional and immediate release” of the peacekeepers, which it said were held by “Security Council-designated terrorist groups and by members of non-state armed groups.”

The U.N. observer force is stationed in a separation zone between Syrian and Israeli troops on the Golan Heights to monitor compliance with a 1974 disengagement agreement reached after the 1973 Middle East war.

Rebels detained groups of peacekeepers in March and May of last year, but they were eventually released unharmed.

More than 1,200 peacekeepers from six nations serve in the force, which also comprises personnel from India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.

The Philippine government said last week that it would bring home its peacekeepers after their tour of duty ends in October. Security concerns led Austria and Croatia to withdraw their personnel from the force last year.

In spillover from the fighting in Syria on Wednesday, a stray bullet wounded an Israeli soldier and one of several mortar rounds that landed in the Israeli-held Golan Heights injured a civilian. The Israeli army said it responded with a missile strike on a Syrian army position.

The capture of the Quneitra crossing brought rebel forces to some 200 yards from the Israeli terminal at the site. Footage posted online showed Islamist rebels pointing to an Israeli flag on the other side of the crossing, and posing with an al Qaida flag.

Syrian activists said Thursday that government warplanes were targeting rebels in the Quneitra area near the border with the Israeli-held Golan, including the village of Jaba, where heavy clashes were reported between opposition and Syrian army forces.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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