Syrian ‘armed group’ captures 43 UN peacekeepers amid fighting in Golan Heights

UN agency says another 81 personnel monitoring Syria-Israel border have also been trapped in positions
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Dozens of UN peacekeepers tasked with monitoring the border between Syria and Israel have been captured by an unspecified “armed group”, officials have said.

The UN said 43 of its personnel had been taken following intense fighting between rebels and the Syrian army in the Golan Heights, a heavily-disputed region.

On Wednesday, opposition fighters on the Syrian side captured a Golan Heights crossing point. Their numbers had been reported as including militants for the al-Qa’ida-linked Nusra Front.

A statement from the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the peacekeepers had been working for the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

“During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from UNDOF were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah,” the statement read.

Druze men in the Golan Heights look on as smoke rises from the fighting between forces loyal to President Assad and rebels over the control of the Quneitra border crossing

It added that another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers were being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.

“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,” the statement added.

Troops monitoring the separation zone have been seized by militants several times over the course of the four-year Syrian civil war. In each of those previous incidents they have subsequently been released safely.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in a 1967 war, and the countries technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalised in 1974.

There are 1,223 UNDOF peacekeepers from six countries monitoring the area of separation. Up until the start of this week they had included forces from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.