Golan Peacekeepers in Firefight With Al Nusra Front

The town of Quneitra where Al Nusra on Wednesday took control of the crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

The town of Quneitra where Al Nusra on Wednesday took control of the crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

Aug. 30, 2014 – UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights have been engaged in ongoing battles with armed groups including the Al Nusra Front.

Thirty-two Filipino troops were rescued by UNDOF’s Quick Reaction Force when they came under attack at Position 69 [see map] while the UN said there is an ongoing battle at position 68 which has pinned down another Filipino contingent. The UN has pulled its troops from Observation Posts 52 and 56 after firing in the vicinity.

There are no reported casualties among UN forces, the United Nations spokesperson’s office said in an email to reporters.

“UNDOF reports that armed elements also attacked UN Position 68 with mortar and heavy machine gun fire. The UN peacekeepers returned fire and prevented the attackers from entering the position. Position 68 is currently under fire, preventing the personnel from moving out,” the email from the UN spokesperson’s office said.

Forty-four Fijian peacekeepers abducted on Thursday are still being held captive by Al Nusra while some 40 more are surrounded and unable to leave their position.

“The Secretary General strongly condemns the attack today on positions of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and the continuing detention and restrictions of movement on 84 UNDOF peacekeepers from the Fijian and Philippine Battalions by armed non-state actors, including the Al Nusra Front,” the UN said in a statement.

The attacks and detention of peacekeepers comes after months of fighting in the separation zone between armed groups and Syrian government forces as well as firing from Syria into Israel. Israel has returned fire to Syrian Army positions as it holds the government responsible for any firing from their side of the of the zone, though it is not clear if Syrian government forces are in control of their positions.

The Al Nusra Front which has teamed up with other armed groups in the area took control of the Syrian crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday.

The 1,200 UN troops are deployed to observe a 1973 ceasefire between Israel and Syria and are stationed along an 80km long and between 0.5 and 10km wide separation zone which both countries agreed should be free of any military activity.

In Ban Ki-moon’s latest report to the Security Council on the UN’s Golan observer force, he wrote that several different armed groups are operating in the area and these groups possess heavy weapons and at least three tanks. A source told UN Tribune that United Nations vehicles have also been captured by the armed groups in the past few days.

The June report to the Council told of an increasingly dangerous environment for the UN peacekeepers who it said have observed black flags associated with the Islamic State in the separation zone and that in April “two members of the armed opposition displayed the severed head of a presumed Syrian armed forces officer as they passed United Nations Position 80.”

Ban’s next report to the Security Council on UNDOF is due in two weeks. The 1,200-troop mission is considered crucial because of the lack of a peace agreement between Syria and Israel but the recent escalation in attacks on peacekeepers and the abduction of the 44 Fijian troops have put its future in jeopardy with the Filipino government announcing last week that it will pull its 330 contingent at the end of September.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image Credit: “Qunaitra” by Christian Koehn. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.