Dozens of UN troops trapped by Syrian rebels freed under fire

Dozens of UN troops trapped by Syrian rebels freed under fire

Irish forces help free captive Filipino peacekeepers; 75 UN soldiers flee to Israel to escape the rebels

A UN peacekeeper runs past vehicles at the UN headquarters next to the Quneitra crossing, the only border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Golan Heights on August 30, 2014 (Photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
A UN peacekeeper runs past vehicles at the UN headquarters next to the Quneitra crossing, the only border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Golan Heights on August 30, 2014 (Photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Around three dozen Filipino UN peacekeepers out of 110 surrounded and trapped by Syrian rebels for the past few days were rescued under fire by other UN forces, news agencies reported Saturday evening.

Irish UNDOF soldiers participated in the rescue efforts, according to a statement by the Irish forces.

“Irish personnel secured a route, provided security as UNDOF troops withdrew from a UN position and escorted them to the Force Headquarters in Camp Faouar” on the Syrian side of the armistice line, the Irish statement said.

The Israeli military cordoned off the area and reinforced its troops, an AFP photographer said.

“They were safely extracted, nearly three dozen of them,” a UN official told Reuters, though he noted that several dozen others were still trapped by rebel forces, with another 44 Fijian peacekeepers being held by the militants.

Several peacekeepers, whose nationality was not clear, were seen hurriedly leaving the area where the fighting was taking place via an Israeli-controlled crossing south of Quneitra.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, UN soldiers said part of the encircled Filipino contingent had been brought out and that others were no longer in rebel hands but awaiting better security conditions so they could enter the Israeli-controlled part of the plateau.

Earlier Saturday, 75 UNDOF peacekeepers in the Golan Heights fled Syrian territory for the Israeli-controlled Golan after their positions were attacked by rebel forces.

An Israeli military spokesman confirmed that a number of UN peacekeepers entered Israel. He spoke on condition of anonymity. Channel 2 said 75 UN troops had crossed the borders, after two UN positions on the Syrian side of the border were targeted by al-Nusra rebel forces.

Clashes continued in the area through Saturday.

Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters Saturday in a series of text messages that Filipino troops manning one UN encampment had been “extricated,” while soldiers in another encampment were “now under attack.”

Asked if there was a fresh firefight Saturday, Gazmin replied: “Yes.”

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala later told AFP that “there is still an ongoing standoff but there was a firefight earlier today.”

“All our troops are safe,” he said.

Activists and officials confirmed to AP that clashes had erupted between the al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels and UN peacekeepers, after the militants surrounded their encampment.

They also said other UN peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.

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 the 44 Fijian peacekeepers.

The Nusra Front also surrounded the nearby Rwihana and Breiqa encampments, where other UN peacekeepers were holed up.

Saturday’s gunbattle began early in the morning at the Rwihana base some 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometers) from Quneitra, where 40 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by Nusra fighters who were ordering them to surrender, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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 as sporadic fighting continued throughout the day.

The 35 Filipino UN peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment were extracted on Saturday morning, with the assistance of Irish peacekeepers who rushed to the scene, said officials.

The Irish UN peacekeeper battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, evacuated all the Filipino UN peacekeepers on Saturday morning, said a military official.

He said there was no shooting involved, and no injuries. He said that the Irish battalion also evacuated another base on Friday but provided no further details.

Gazmin confirmed that peacekeepers from his country were “extricated.”

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 44 Fijian peacekeepers seized Wednesday “are safe and in good health.”

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.

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