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UN peacekeepers attacked by Syrian militants escape, but others still held

Filipino United Nations peacekeepers who were surrounded and attacked by anti-government rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights fled to safety under the cover of darkness early Sunday, the UN said, while another group of peacekeepers from Fiji were still being held after their capture last week.

The United Nations said that 40 peacekeepers from the Philippines, whose position had come under assault, escaped during a cease-fire with “armed elements” in the area shortly after midnight local time and “arrived in a safe location one hour later.”

Another 35 Filipino peacekeepers were extricated Saturday in armored vehicles from another position that was also fired upon, the UN said.

The peacekeepers are stationed in a buffer zone between Israeli and Syrian forces on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel. Israeli forces captured a large portion of the region in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The incidents came amid intensified fighting between Syrian opposition and government forces near the frontier with the Golan Heights. In spillover from the fighting, the Israeli army said Sunday that it shot down a drone apparently operated by the Syrian army that strayed into Israeli-controlled airspace.

After rebel fighters, including members of the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, seized the Syrian side of the Quneitra frontier crossing last week, they captured 44 Fijian UN troops and surrounded two UN positions manned by Philippine soldiers, demanding that they surrender with their weapons.

The Nusra Front claimed responsibility for seizing the Fijian peacekeepers in a statement issued late Saturday, accusing UN troops of ignoring the bloodshed in Syria’s civil war and helping forces of President Bashar Assad launch attacks through the buffer zone patrolled by the peacekeepers.

About 100 gunmen besieged Filipino troops Position 68, near the village of Rweihina, leading to an extended standoff. The peacekeepers were attacked on Saturday with mortar rounds and heavy machine-gun fire, UN and Philippine officials said.

“The Syrian rebels attacked on board pickup trucks. Our peacekeepers returned fire in self-defense. Our troops fought back bravely and held their positions,” the Philippine army chief, General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., told a news conference in Manila on Sunday.

Colonel Roberto Ancan, head of the Philippine army’s peacekeeping operations center, said that Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds at the rebels to prevent them from overwhelming the trapped UN troops.

“Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours,” Catapang said. As the cease-fire took hold, the 40 Filipinos escaped under cover of darkness “while the rebels were resting in the middle of the night,” the general added.

The soldiers fled on foot with their weapons, walking about a mile and a half before meeting up with other UN forces, Philippine officials said.

The Filipino peacekeepers were taken to a UN base in the Golan Heights. The Israeli army said it had coordinated the entry of peacekeepers from the Syrian side of the Golan under routine procedures.

Catapang thanked the governments of Israel and Syria for their assistance, and the Philippine military said the United States and Qatar had been involved in negotiations to extricate the peacekeepers.

“We may call it the greatest escape,” Catapang said.

The commander of the Fijian army said Sunday that negotiations for the release of the 44 captive Fijian peacekeepers were continuing “at all levels,” and that assurances had been received that they were being well treated.

“However, we are still very concerned that we cannot confirm at this stage their exact location, whether they are still in Syria or whether they have been moved to neighboring countries,” said the commander, Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga.

The Nusra Front statement on the capture of the Fijian peacekeepers was published on the Internet with a group picture of the uniformed soldiers under the faction’s banner, and a photo of their identification cards. The statement said the captives were safe and in good health.

It accused the UN of issuing “mere statements and empty words that completely ignore the crimes and massacres” committed by government forces during the Syrian civil war, while branding the Nusra Front a terrorist group.

The UN peacekeeping force was working to “guarantee the security and protect the borders of the Zionist entity…while completely disregarding the blood of the Muslims that is shed daily on the other side of the border,” the statement added. It charged that UN troops were colluding with the Syrian army to “facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims” through the Golan buffer zone.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, patrols a 45-mile long strip on the Golan Heights between Israeli and Syrian forces, monitoring a 1974 disengagement agreement reached after the 1973 Middle East war. The force has 1,223 troops from six countries, which also include Ireland, India, Nepal and the Netherlands.