A convoy of UN armored vehicles in Syria, near the Israeli border.
A convoy of UN armored vehicles in Syria, near the Quneitra border crossing with Israel, August 30, 2014. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
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AFP
Filipino UN peacekeepers cross the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, March 9, 2013. Photo by AFP

Thirty-two UN peacekeepers were rescued from Islamist militants who had fired on their post on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on Saturday, the United Nations said.



A UN official said a number of UNDOF contingents participated in the action on Saturday, assisted by Israeli and Syrian forces. It was unclear what form that assistance took. 

Another group of UN soldiers - also from the Philippines - remained trapped by the Islamists who surrounded their positions on Thursday, and a gun battle was ongoing, the UN press office said. 

A Reuters cameraman spotted 11 UN armored vehicles returning to their base in Israeli-controlled territory about 12 hours after the peacekeepers came under fire at around 6 A.M. on Saturday. 

"All 32 Filipino personnel from this position have been extricated and are now safe," the United Nations press office said in a statement issued in New York.

The remaining troops, at a separate border post, were still under mortar and heavy machine gun fire, the statement said.

Another 44 UNDOF peacekeepers, from Fiji, were detained by militants 8 kilometers (5 miles) away from the Philippine troops on Thursday and remain missing.



UNDOF has 1,223 peacekeepers in the zone from six countries - Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

The United Nations said this week the Philippines had decided to pull out of UNDOF. Austria, Japan and Croatia have all pulled their troops out of UNDOF due to the deteriorating security situation and spillover from the Syrian war.  

Earlier, Arab media ourlets reported that some UN peacekeepers had escaped Syria and entered Israel. The reports were confirmed by an Israeli source. It was not immediately clear of which nationality the said peacekeepers are.

Clashes erupted between al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels and UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Saturday after the militants surrounded their encampment, activists and officials said, as the international organization risked being sucked further into the conflict. Other UN peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, they said.

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 44 Fijian peacekeepers.

The gun battle began early Saturday at the Rwihana base some 2.3 kilometers (1.5 miles) 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. The Philippines' Defense 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 40 Filipino peacekeepers in the Rwihana encampment as sporadic fighting continued throughout the day. A Philippine military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, also said there were no casualties.

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 who spoke on condition that his name nor country of origin would be not be revealed, citing army policy.

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 Philippine military said there were 35 Filipino troops in the encampment.

An Israeli military spokesman confirmed that a number of UN peacekeepers entered Israel. He spoke on condition of anonymity citing military guidelines.

It was not immediately clear which rebel group was holding the Fijian UN peacekeepers, although it was likely to be the Nusra Front, said Syrian activist Abdurrahman.

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 Fijian peacekeepers "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.

Various rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.

Philippine peacekeepers at one UN encampment were attacked, but those at another were "extricated," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters in a series of text messages, adding that the attack started early Saturday Syrian time.

Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told reporters, "There is an ongoing firefight, but all Filipinos are safe."

There were 40 Filipino troops in the encampment that came under attack, and 35 in the second, according to the Philippine military.

The Syrian rebels seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers on Thursday. The rebels then demanded that the 75 Filipinos manning two separate UN encampments 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) apart surrender their weapons, but they refused.

The situation of the peacekeepers, whose mission monitors 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 Fijian peacekeepers "are safe and in good health."

The statement added that they had been informed "the intention behind holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection."

In Australia on Saturday, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop condemned the detention of the Fijian peacekeepers and called for their release.

"As a member of the UN Security Council, Australia demands the unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers," Bishop said in a statement.

Bishop said she telephoned Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola to express Australia's strong support, including Australia's intelligence resources.

Bishop also said she assured them that Australia will use its position on the UN Security Council to maintain focus on this issue.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also 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.

But the Philippine government said last week that it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ends in October, amid deteriorating security in the area. Various Syrian rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.