Syrian rebels are in control of almost the entire Syrian border with Israel, a monitoring group and the Al-Arabiya news network reported Saturday.
According to the report quoted by Israel’s Channel 10, rebel forces on Friday gained control of two additional villages near Quneitra, the war-torn nation’s solitary border crossing with Israel, leaving only one village in the Syrian army’s hands
The report added that the towns of Rawadi and Hamidiyah were taken after heavy fighting between the rebels and the army, loyal to President Bashar Assad.
“The regime is on the retreat before the advancing rebels,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. “The regime has now lost control of about 80 percent of towns and villages in Quneitra province.”
On Friday night a mortar shell exploded on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, in what authorities believe was a stray from fighting across the border. There were no reports of injuries or damage.
Meanwhile Israel Radio reported that UN peacekeepers were evacuating the equipment from Camp Faouar, their main headquarters in Syria, to Israel. UN troops were bringing their gear over the border via special gates opened for them by the IDF, according to the report, and not through Quneitra which is now under rebel control. Only a small Fijian force is expected to remain at the base in a few days.
A-Sharq al-Awsat, quoting Syrian opposition sources, reported Saturday that the Qatari government paid a heavy ransom to rebels for the release of 45 captive UN peacekeepers freed Thursday.
According to the report Doha paid somewhere between $20-$45 million to the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front which had held the troops since August 28. Qatar took credit for negotiating the release on Friday, though it made no mention of a ransom.
Fighters from the Nusra Front group captured the Fijian troops late last month in the Golan Heights, where a 1,200-strong UN force monitors the buffer zone between Syria and Israel.
In exchange for the Fijians’ release, Nusra Front had demanded removal of the group from the UN terrorist list, the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of the Syrian capital of Damascus, and compensation for three of its fighters who, it claims, were killed in a shootout with UN officers.
The capture of the 45 came during heavy fighting between rebels groups and Syrian army soldiers around the Quneitra crossing. Dozens of other peacekeepers from the Philippines managed to escape the group during a firefight.
The Nusra Front has accused the UN of doing nothing to help the Syrian people since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. It said the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the UN’s ignoring “the daily shedding of the Muslims’ blood in Syria” and even colluding with Assad’s army “to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims” through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights.
Last week, several mortar shells exploded in an open area in the Golan Heights, apparently the result of inadvertent spillover from fighting in Syria, according to the IDF. Israel responded by firing a Tamuz missile at the origin of the attack. An IDF spokesperson said the strike was successful.
Artillery from Syria has landed frequently on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights for the past few weeks as regime and rebel forces fight over the Quneitra crossing.
AP and AFP contributed to this report.