43 UN Fijian peacekeepers seized in Syrian Golan Heights

Agence France-Presse
An additional 81 Filipino peacekeepers are being restricted to their positions

FILIPINO PEACEKEEPERS: (File Photo) A new batch of 336 Filipino peacekeepers leave for the Golan Heights in November 2013. Photo from the Philippine Army

UNITED NATIONS, New York – (UPDATED) The United Nations said that an armed group detained 43 Fijian UN peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on Thursday and that it was doing everything to secure their release.

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

Israel closed off the area around Quneitra on Wednesday after an officer was wounded by stray fire as Syrian rebels, including fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra front, stormed the crossing.

Six countries are contributing to the 1,200-strong unit: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

“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,” it said in a statement.

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 Agence France-Presse correspondent saw 6 white UN vehicles crossing the ceasefire line into Syrian territory through a gate in the fence some 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Quneitra crossing.

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

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.

In 2013, 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 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community. – Rappler.com

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