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Syrian rebels attack Golan Heights; Al-Qaida hits UN force on Israeli front.

Byline: Diaa Hadid and Oliver Teves

BEIRUT -- Clashes erupted between al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels and U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Saturday after the militants surrounded their encampment, activists and officials said, as the international organization risked being sucked further into the conflict.

Other U.N. peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, they said.

The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing Wednesday on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers.

The Nusra Front also surrounded the nearby Rwihana and Breiqa encampments, where other U.N. peacekeepers were holed up.

The gunbattle began early Saturday at the Rwihana base 1.5 miles from Quneitra, where 40 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by Nusra fighters who were ordering them to surrender, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Philippines' Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin gave a similar account, but did not name the armed group.

Abdurrahman, whose information comes from a network of activists throughout Syria, said he was not aware of any fatalities among the 40 Filipino peacekeepers in the Rwihana encampment as sporadic fighting continued throughout the day. A Philippine military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, also said there were no casualties.

The U.N. mission, known as UNDOF, has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned Saturday's attack on U.N. peacekeepers' positions in the Golan Heights, in a statement released by his spokesman.

''The Secretary General demands the unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers and calls upon all parties to cooperate fully with UNDOF to enable it to operate freely and to ensure full safety and security of its personnel and assets,'' the statement said.

The 35 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment were extracted Saturday morning, with the assistance of Irish peacekeepers who rushed to the scene, said officials.

The Irish U.N. peacekeeper battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, evacuated all the Filipino U.N. peacekeepers Saturday morning, said a military official who spoke on condition that his name and country of origin not be revealed, citing army policy.

An Israeli military spokesman confirmed that a number of U.N. peacekeepers entered Israel. He spoke on condition of anonymity citing military guidelines.

The situation of the peacekeepers, tasked with monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel, remains ''very, very fluid,'' the U.N. secretary-general's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters Friday at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

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Author:Hadid, Diaa; Teves, Oliver
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Aug 31, 2014
Words:453
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