GOLAN HEIGHTS, Syria – UN peacekeepers caught up in heavy fighting on the Golan Heights were evacuated Saturday, August 30, as the fate of more than 110 of their colleagues captured by Syrian rebels remained uncertain.
An AFP photographer heard intense small arms and missile fire in the buffer zone separating the Israeli-occupied part of the strategic plateau and the Syrian part, where soldiers with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) are being held.
Irish soldiers with UNDOF, which is responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the armistice line between Israel and Syria, took part in an evacuation of UN troops during Saturday's fighting, the Irish military said in a statement.
"Irish personnel secured a route, provided security as UNDOF troops withdrew from a UN position and escorted them to the Force Headquarters in Camp Faouar" on the Syrian side of the armistice line, the Irish statement said.
The Israeli military has cordoned off the area and reinforced its troops, an AFP photographer said.
Several peacekeepers, whose nationality was not clear, were seen hurriedly leaving the area where the fighting is taking place via an Israeli-controlled crossing south of Quneitra.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, UN soldiers said part of the encircled Filipino contingent had been brought out and that others were no longer in rebel hands but awaiting better security conditions so they could enter the Israeli-controlled part of the plateau.
In Manila, Philippines Defence Minister Voltaire Gazmin said earlier Saturday that UN peacekeepers had clashed with Syrian rebels.
Gazmin said in an SMS statement to reporters that the Filipino troops had been "extricated" from one of their two positions but added that another group of Filipino soldiers "is now under attack."
The peacekeepers numbering 72 were besieged by rebels Thursday, August 28, but defied demands that they give up their weapons.
Rebels, including some linked to Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, also took hostage 44 Fijian peacekeepers, the UN has said.
A UN statement on Friday, August 29, said the world body "has received assurances from credible sources" that the Fijians "are safe and in good health" although their mission has had no contact with them.
But a senior Fijian military official told reporters in Suva on Saturday that their location was unknown.
"Their whereabouts at this stage, unfortunately, I cannot confirm," Brigadier Mosese Tikoitoga said after speaking to the head of the UN team negotiating for their release.
"They confirmed that our men are safe and they are all well. (But) they have been moved to a location out of the bombardment range of any security forces or the Syrian security forces.
"It is out of the UN territory. But again it's the word of the group. We've got no verification whatsoever, no communication but we're only relaying the message that was delivered to us by the negotiators."
There are currently 1,200 peacekeepers serving in UNDOF from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.
UNDOF has been tasked with monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974. – Rappler.com