UN peacekeepers from the Philippines clashed with Syrian rebels yesterday in the Golan Heights, activists and officials said, as the international organisation risked being sucked further into the conflict.
The gun battle began early yesterday at the Rwihana base some 2.3km from Quneitra crossing, which is located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights. Forty Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by rebels of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, who ordered them to surrender, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire 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 Filipino peacekeepers in the Rwihana encampment as sporadic fighting continued throughout the day. Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala also said there were no casualties.
The 35 Filipino UN peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment, who were also surrounded by rebels, were extracted yesterday morning, with the help of Irish peacekeepers who rushed to the scene, said officials.
An official 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.
An Israeli military spokesman confirmed that a number of UN peacekeepers entered Israel.
Meanwhile, it was still unclear which rebel group was holding Fijian UN peacekeepers, who were captured on Wednesday. It was likely to be the al-Nusra Front, said Abdurrahman. The al-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, remained "very, very fluid", the UN secretary-general's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said on 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 "were safe and in good health".
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the detention of the Fijians and called for their immediate release. A spokeswoman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he was "keeping a close watch" on the fate of the troops.
The UN mission, known as UNDOF, has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse