Syria army, rebels clash as UN bids to free Golan monitors
GOLAN HEIGHTS - Agence France-Presse
Smoke caused by fighting in Syria is seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, close to the border with Syria, Sept. 1. AP PhotoSyrian troops and Islamist rebels battled close to the armistice line with Israel in the Golan Heights on Sept. 1, as the U.N. pressed efforts to free 44 peacekeepers held by the insurgents.
The unrest on Israel's doorstep followed a spillover of mortar and gunfire into Israeli-controlled territory, putting the Jewish state on high alert and prompting it to shoot down a drone over the occupied plateau on Aug. 31.
Several mortar rounds struck on the edges of the ceasefire line early Sept. 1 as the combatants exchanged rocket, mortar and tank fire near the Quneitra crossing, which Al-Qaeda-linked rebels seized last week, an AFP correspondent reported.
Israel had closed off the area around the crossing after an officer was wounded by stray fire on Aug. 27 when insurgents led by the Al-Nusra Front took over the crossing into the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said Nusra fighters were locked in fierce clashes with government troops for control of the Hamidiyeh area in Quneitra, the army's remaining stronghold there.
Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the Syrian regime, said the army was "confronting attempts by Al-Nusra fighters and other terrorist groups" to take control of Hamidiyeh.
Meanwhile the U.N. was working to locate and release 44 Fijian peacekeepers whom the insurgents captured while they overran Quneitra, as 72 Filipino members of the same force escaped a rebel siege on their positions nearby.
The Fijians were "safe" but their whereabouts uncertain, a military official said Saturday, indicating there was contact with the group that was holding them.
And after a seven-hour firefight, 40 Filippino peacekeepers slipped away under cover of night after rebels rammed their Golan Heights outpost with armed trucks, the Philippine military said Aug. 31. More than 30 other Filippino troops had reached safety Aug. 30.
The U.N. peacekeepers are part of a mission that has monitored the Israel-Syria ceasefire on the strategic plateau since 1974. Peacekeepers were detained twice last year before being released safely.
The Philippines said before the latest incident that it will repatriate its 331-strong contingent for security reasons, mirroring previous moves by Australia, Croatia and Japan.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force currently has 1,200 peacekeepers from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.