UN tries to locate Fijian peacekeepers seized on Golan Heights
UN officials shuttled along the rocky frontier between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, trying to establish the whereabouts of 44 United Nations peacekeepers seized by al-Qaeda-linked militants inside Syria.
Israeli forces took up positions at Quneitra, a fortified crossing between Syria and the Golan, barely 400 metres (437 yards) from Nusra Front militants who attacked a UN base on the Syrian side of the border on Wednesday and seized the 44 Fijians.
Some 72 other UN soldiers, all from the Philippines, remained locked down in two camps on the Syrian side of the frontier, UN officials and military officials in the Philippines said. All 116 peacekeepers are part of UNDOF, a UN force that has monitored the disengagement zone between Israel and Syria since 1974 in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
UNDOF officials declined to comment as they left one of their compounds. UNDOF has 1,223 peacekeepers from six countries operating in the zone.
Israeli soldiers, including some redeployed from Gaza, prevented anyone from moving too close to the border.
"We're not doing anything, we're just watching," said an Israeli officer, his platoon hunkered down behind a mound of rocks a few hundred yards back from the crossing, the blue UN flag fluttering above the compound in the near distance.
From a lookout point on the Israeli-controlled side, with views across southeastern Syria, Nusra Front rebels could be seen moving on motorbikes and in pick-up trucks, while further away the Syrian army battled opposition forces.
The sound of shelling and heavy gunfire echoed across the valley and plumes of smoke rose from buildings as the fighting played out barely two km (1.2 miles) away.
It was the third time in two years that UNDOF troops had been seized on the Syrian side of the demarcation zone, a measure of the instability since the uprising began against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Until then, UNDOF had been one of the quietest UN peacekeeping posts anywhere in the world.
In both previous cases those seized were released within days, UN officials said. But the situation appeared to be more precarious this time. A militant close to the Nusra Front said the Fijians had been taken because they had been providing medical treatment to wounded soldiers from Assad's army.
"The United Nations is engaging with a wide range of parties within Syria," Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesman in New York, told reporters, adding that it was also speaking with "member states who may have influence over armed opposition elements to encourage their safe release."
A UN official told reporters that Qatar was one of the countries with which the United Nations had been in touch about securing the freedom of the peacekeepers. The Gulf Arab state in recent days helped secure the release of an American writer long held by Nusra.
In Manila, a senior officer said the Filipino troops holed up on the Syrian side were well-armed, well-trained and had no intention of surrendering to the rebels.
"Our position is a well-fortified position in the area of separation," said Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philippines Peacekeeping Mission Operation Centre.