Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Fierce fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels erupted once more in the Golan Heights on Monday, while 44 Fijian soldiers from the UN peacekeeping force patrolling the region remained hostages of the Al-Nusra Front.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, told Asharq Al-Awsat that clashes in the area raged continuously from Monday morning until noon, and that insurgents from the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Brigades group suffered heavy casualties, as did government forces.
Most of the fighting was centered on the Quneitra crossing separating Syria and Israel, which fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra captured from government forces on Thursday.
Al-Nusra Front fighters then attacked and surrounded a camp used by forces from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been patrolling the area since the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israel.
Al-Nusra captured 44 Fijian peacekeepers, and besieged the camp, where around 70 soldiers from the Philippines were also stationed.
The two sides exchanged heavy gunfire until Saturday, when 32 of the Filipino soldiers, aided by other UNDOF soldiers from the Philippines and Ireland in armored vehicles, pulled off an escape later in the day, with the rest of the soldiers safely leaving the camp on Sunday.
Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang called the operation “the greatest escape” on Sunday as he briefed reporters in the Philippine capital Manila.
Catapang also called for the investigation of one of UNDOF’s commanders in the Golan Heights, whom Catapang accuses of ordering the Filipino soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender to the militants.
Catapang said he asked the soldiers to defy the order. “I told them [the soldiers] not to follow the order because that is a violation of our regulation, that we do not surrender our firearms, and, at the same time, there is no assurance that you will be safe after you give [up] your firearms,” he said.
The other 44 soldiers, all from Fiji, are still held by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, which said on Saturday that the troops were “in a safe place, in good health, and are being given what food they need.”
Fiji says it is currently negotiating for their release, while the UN says it does not know where they are being held.
Al-Nusra said it is holding the soldiers because it believes the UNDOF forces protect Israel and accuses them of being “complicit” with Syrian government forces.
On Tuesday, the commander of Fiji’s military said the organization had issued three demands for the release of the 44 peacekeepers.
Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said that Al-Nusra was demanding to be removed from the UN’s list of terrorist organizations, the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of Damascus, and compensation for the deaths of some of its members in a gun battle with UN personnel.
UN hostage negotiators had traveled to Syria to handle talks with the captors, he added.
UN forces have patrolled the Golan Heights since 1975. A total of 1,252 soldiers from six countries including India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands currently serve in the UNDOF peacekeeping forces.