BEIRUT — Clashes erupted between al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels and UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Saturday after the militants surrounded their encampment, said activists and officials, as the international organization risked being sucked further into the conflict.
Other UN peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Philippines’ Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin confirmed that peacekeepers from his country were “extricated.”
The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing — located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights — on Wednesday, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers.
The Nusra Front also surrounded the nearby Rwihana and Breiqa encampments, where other UN peacekeepers were holed up.
The gunbattle began early Saturday at the Rwihana base some 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometres) from Quneitra, where 40 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by Nusra fighters who were ordering them to surrender, said Abdurrahman. Gazmin gave a similar account but did not name the armed group.
Abdurrahman, whose information comes from a network of activists throughout Syria, said he was not aware of any fatalities among the 40 Filipino peacekeepers in the Rwihana encampment. A Philippine military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, also said there were no casualties.
Abdurrahman said some peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment were able to flee, but he said it wasn’t immediately clear how many, nor to where. The Philippine military said there were 35 Filipino troops in the encampment. Gazmin did not provide further information.
It was not immediately clear which rebel group was holding the Fijian UN peacekeepers, although it was likely to be the Nusra Front, said Abdurrahman.
The Nusra Front has recently seized hostages to exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.
The situation of the peacekeepers, tasked with monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel, remains “very, very fluid,” the UN secretary-general’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters Friday at the UN headquarters in New York.
The UN said in a statement that it had received assurances from credible sources that the Fijian peacekeepers “are safe and in good health.”
The statement added that they had been informed “the intention behind holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Saturday condemned the detention of the Fijian peacekeepers and called for their release.
“As a member of the UN Security Council, Australia demands the unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers,” Bishop said in a statement.
Bishop said she telephoned Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola to express Australia’s strong support.
Bishop also said she assured them that Australia will use its position on the UN Security Council to maintain focus on this issue.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the detention of the Fijians and called for their immediate release.
The UN mission, known as UNDOF, has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.
The Philippines said last week that it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ends in October, amid deteriorating security in the area. Various rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.