Over 40 members of a UN peacekeeping force were abducted Thursday by Syrian rebels during clashes in the Syrian Golan Heights, just across the Israeli border.
According to the a statement released by the UN, 43 soldiers from the UN Disengagement Observer Force were kidnapped by “an armed group” near the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria. Another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers were restricted to their positions near Ruwayhinah and Burayqah as a result of fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels, the UN added.
“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,” the statement read.
The UN did not release the identities of the abducted soldiers, though the kidnapped peacekeeping force is understood to be composed of Fijan nationals.
The UNDOF peacekeepers have been monitoring the disengagement accord between Syria and Israel since 1974, following the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War one year earlier. In June, the Security Council extended the mission’s mandate for another six months, until 31 December 2014, the UN said.
On Wednesday, the Quneitra crossing in the Syrian Golan Heights, the only crossing between Israel and Syria, was seized by rebel combatants, including members of the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, one of the main groups fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad for control of the embattled country.
“Al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups took the Quneitra crossing, and heavy fighting with the Syrian army is continuing in the surrounding area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based NGO.
The Syrian opposition groups themselves later announced the “liberation” of the Quneitra border crossing with Israel. In a document uploaded to Twitter, the rebel groups added that after a series of battles, they managed to take control of the al-Rawadi checkpoint, also near the border.
At least seven mortars fired from Syria landed in the Israeli side of the Golan Heights over the course of Wednesday. The IDF said it had not determined whether the mortars were fired into Israel intentionally or were a spillover from fighting between rival factions on the Syrian side of the border.
One Israeli man was lightly wounded Wednesday after a mortar landed near him, and earlier, an IDF officer was moderately injured as a result of stray fire from fighting between rebel groups and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria.
As a result of the fighting on the Syrian side of the plateau, the level of alert was raised on the Israeli side, an army spokesperson said, without confirming that it had been increased to the highest level.
Spillovers of violence from Syria and even intentional attacks by militants and Syrian forces are not unheard of in the region.
On Sunday, five rockets were fired from Syria into Israel.
Last month a rocket from Syria prompted Israeli artillery to shell Syrian army positions.
In June Israeli warplanes attacked Syrian military headquarters and positions after an Israeli teenager was killed in a cross-border attack by forces loyal to the Assad regime.
In March, four Israeli troops were wounded when their patrol jeep apparently ran over a bomb placed by Hezbollah fighters near the Israel-Syria border.
AFP and Spencer Ho contributed to this report.