Syria: 43 UN peacekeepers held by ‘armed group’

The UN observers monitor the 'area of separation'. Picture: AP
The UN observers monitor the 'area of separation'. Picture: AP
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A GROUP of 43 United Nations peacekeepers was being held by an “armed group” in the Syrian Golan Heights yesterday, according to the UN.

Personnel from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) were detained near Quneitra during fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces.

Another 81 peacekeepers were being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of al-Ruwayhina and Burayqa.

Last night, it was reported those being held were from the Philippines and Fiji.

The UN observers monitor the “area of separation”, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the frontier with Jordan.

There are 1,223 Undof peacekeepers from six countries stationed there.

The news came a day after heavy fighting in the Quneitra area of the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, during which rebels took control of a crossing into Israeli-occupied land.

Activists said the rebels included members of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

During the fighting, an Israeli soldier and an Israeli civilian were wounded by stray bullets. The Israeli military said it had responded with artillery fire at two Syrian army positions.

Mortars also struck near Undof positions, but there were no casualties.

The UN spokesman said the 43 peacekeepers had been detained “during a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation”.

He added: “The UN 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.”

He did not specify which armed group was holding them.

The lightly-armed Undof’s personnel come from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines.

Earlier this week, the UN said the Philippines had decided to pull out of Undof, and also from a UN force in Liberia, which is struggling with an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

Yesterday, Ireland said it would be reviewing its participation in the UN mission – even though no Irish troops were among those captured.

This is not the first time Undof personnel have been detained by rebel fighters in recent years. Peacekeepers were detained in March and May last year, although they were released safely.

The Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria, has a political and strategic significance that belies its size. Israel seized the region in the closing stages of the 1967 Six-Day War, and thwarted a Syrian attempt to retake it in 1973.

Both countries signed an armistice in 1974, after which Undof was put in place to monitor the demilitarised zone.