43 UN peacekeepers seized in Syrian Golan Heights: UN
Members of (UNDOF) in armoured vehicles cross from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights into Syrian - AFP
AFP

UNITED NATIONS, United States: The United Nations said that an armed group captured 43 UN peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on Thursday and that an additional 81 troops were trapped.

The 43 detained peacekeepers were from Fiji and while the 81 others were from the Filipino contingent, a diplomatic source told AFP.

Syrian rebels, including fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra front, stormed the crossing at Quneitra on Wednesday, sparking an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops.

“Forty-three peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Quneitra,” a UN statement said.

An additional 81 peacekeepers were “currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah,” it added.

UN officials noted that the peacekeepers monitoring the armistice line between Israel and Syria were detained twice last year and released safely.

“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 added.

In June 2013, there was a similar takeover of the crossing by rebel forces, but the Syrian army managed to regain control.

On the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan, an AFP correspondent saw six white UN vehicles crossing the ceasefire line into Syrian territory through a gate in the fence some 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of the Quneitra crossing.

Quneitra is the only crossing between the Syrian and the Israeli-controlled side of the strategic plateau.

Six countries contribute troops to 1,200-strong UNDOF: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

The Philippines, which has 331 troops serving in UNDOF, announced on Saturday that it will pull out of the peace force, citing security concerns.

Filipino defense officials said no fresh troops would be sent to serve in UNDOF once the current soldiers return from duty in October.

Last year the Philippines also considered pulling its Golan peacekeepers out after 25 of them were kidnapped but later freed by Syrian rebels in two separate incidents.

A Filipino soldier was also wounded by a wayward shell last year.

Since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the plateau has been tense, with a growing number of rockets and mortar rounds hitting the Israeli side, mostly stray, prompting occasional armed responses.

During fighting on Wednesday, several mortars landed in or near UN positions, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Israel, which has yet to sign a peace deal with Syria, seized 460 square miles (1,200 square kilometers) of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.

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