Peacekeepers escape after 7-hour gun battle with rebels

Under cover of darkness, 40 Filipino peacekeepers escaped their besieged outpost in the Golan Heights after a seven-hour gun battle with Syrian rebels, Philippine officials have said.

Peacekeepers escape after 7-hour gun battle with rebels

However, 44 Fijian soldiers remain in the hands of the insurgents.

The getaway, combined with the departure of another trapped group of Filipino troops, marked a major step forward in a crisis that erupted on Thursday when Syrian rebels began targeting the peacekeeping forces.

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the assaults on international troops, and has demanded the unconditional release of those still in captivity.

The crisis began after Syrian rebels overran the Quneitra crossing — located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights — on Wednesday.

A day later, insurgents from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front seized the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded their Filipino colleagues, demanding they surrender. The Filipinos, occupying two UN encampments, refused and fought the rebels on Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of a UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armoured vehicles.

The remaining 40 peacekeepers were besieged at the second encampment, called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp’s gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds. The Filipinos returned fire in self-defence, Philippine military officials said.

At one point, Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers being overwhelmed, said Col Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official who helped monitor the tense stand-off from the Philippine capital, Manila, and mobilise support for the besieged troops.

“Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours,” Philippine military chief Gen Gregorio Pio Catapang said, adding that there were no Filipino casualties.

The Nusra Front, meanwhile, published a photo online, showing what it said were the captured Fijians in their military uniforms along with 45 identification cards. The group said the men “are in a safe place and in good health, and everything they need in terms of food and medicine is given to them.”

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox