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UN peacekeepers in firefight with Syrian rebels

United Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines stationed on the Syrian Golan Heights exchanged fire with Syrian rebels surrounding their base on Saturday as another group of Filipino troops were extricated from a neighboring post, the UN and Philippine officials said.

No casualties among the peacekeepers were reported in the firefight, which followed the capture of 44 peacekeepers from Fiji on Thursday after rebel forces seized the Quneitra crossing at the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

The incidents came amid stepped-up fighting between the Syrian army and opposition fighters near the frontier, where UN forces patrol a buffer zone between Israeli and Syrian lines.

The gun battle erupted at about 6 a.m. local time Saturday after a group of 40 Philippine peacekeepers were attacked in one of their bases, known as Camp 68, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said. The base is near the Syrian village of Rweihina.

Although Gazmin did not identify the attackers, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, said they were from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, and that the rebel fighters had earlier ordered the peacekeepers to surrender.

The Filipino troops refused to give up their arms and have been locked in a standoff with the rebels since Thursday, according to UN and Philippine officials.

"There was a firefight, but I would like to assure everyone that our troops are safe at the moment," said Ramon Zagala, spokesman for the Philippine armed forces.

A UN statement issued later said the Filipino post was still under mortar and heavy machine gun fire. "The UN peacekeepers returned fire and prevented the attackers from entering the position," the statement said.

Another group of 32 Filipino peacekeepers who had been surrounded at a neighboring base known as Camp 69, near the village of Breiqa, were removed on Saturday, the UN said.

"All 32 Filipino personnel from this position have been extricated and are now safe," according to the statement. The troops were evacuated without incident by the Irish UN peacekeeper battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, an unidentified military official told the Associated Press.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said that peacekeepers had crossed over to a UN base in the Israeli-held Golan Heights, but she declined to provide further details. Reuters reported that 11 armored UN vehicles had returned to a base in Israeli-controlled territory.

UN officials are trying to establish the whereabouts of the 44 Fijian peacekeepers who were seized Thursday after being ordered to lay down their arms. It was not immediately clear which rebel group was holding them, and the UN has said it could not confirm reports that they were from the Nusra Front.

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN, said Friday that it was "engaging with a wide range of parties within Syria" to free the captive peacekeepers, and contacts were underway with "member states who may have influence over armed opposition elements to encourage their safe release."

The UN said in a statement Friday that it had "received assurances from credible sources" that the Fijian peacekeepers "who were taken from their position…are safe and in good health."

The UN peacekeeping force "has been informed that the intention behind those holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection," the statement added.

UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has condemned the capture of the Fijian troops and called for their immediate release.

The peacekeepers serve in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which monitors a 45-mile long buffer strip between Israeli and Syrian troops as part of a 1974 disengagement agreement that followed the 1973 Middle East war. The force has 1,223 peacekeepers from six countries.

UN peacekeepers in the Golan were held by Syrian rebel groups in two incidents last year, but were later released unharmed.