Syrian opposition rebels, including fighters from Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, clashed Saturday with U.N. peacekeepers after a tense two-day standoff near the disputed Golan Heights, according to officials and activists.
One group of peacekeepers, from the Philippines, was rescued after being encircled by Islamist fighters, and reportedly fled across the border into Israel. But Al Nusra Front said it was holding several dozen United Nations troops, apparently from Fiji.
Firefights were reported to have broken out between 40 Filipino members of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force and the militants Saturday morning after the peacekeepers refused to surrender their weapons to the rebels.
No casualties were reported, said a spokesman for the Philippine army, Lt. Ramon Zagala.
“There was a firefight but I would like to assure everyone that our troops are safe at the moment,” Zagala told the Philippines state news agency, PNA. He said negotiations were continuing despite the hostilities.
Thirty-two other members of the Philippine contingent, whose position about two miles south of the village of Burayqah had also been encircled by Islamist fighters, were “extricated,” according to Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
Arab and Israeli news reports said they had crossed the border into Israel.
Israeli TV said they were among about 100 U.N. peacekeepers who had fled into Israel with help from U.N. and Israeli forces. The report said they had been taken to a U.N. base on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and were receiving medical treatment.
The confrontation began Thursday when Syrian rebels surrounded a U.N. outpost near the village of Ruwayhinah. Al Nusra Front fighters, who along with other factions had wrested control of the area from Syrian pro-government forces a day earlier, detained U.N. Disengagement Observer Force peacekeepers from Fiji. Although previous reports said the group consisted of 44 Fijians, Al Nusra Front put out a statement late Saturday saying it was holding 45 U.N. troops.
“We confirm that those held are in a safe location and are in good health, [and are being] given what they require of food and treatment, for our good Muslim religion urges us to be charitable to our prisoners,” the statement said.
The statement did not make any demands or offer the captives’ release. It complained, however, that the United Nations had issued only “statements and hollow words” against President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria, which the rebels are trying to overthrow.
It said the U.N. forces around the Golan Heights “were imposed on the Syrian people … to guarantee the security and protect the borders of the Zionist entity that is invading the Muslim lands,” a reference to Israel.
Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since the 1967 Middle East War, and U.N. peacekeepers have been stationed in the area since 1974. The mission, which as of June consisted of 1,223 troops from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines, has increasingly found itself in the middle of the civil war engulfing Syria.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman and Sobelman from Jerusalem.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Aug. 30, 4:33 p.m.: This article was updated with new details throughout.