The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force(UNDOF) has been in the Golan Heights area since 1974. There are 1,223 troops from six countries in all: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands, and the Philippines.
Syrian rebels including the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front have been fighting in the Golan Heights area with the Syrian military for some time. On Saturday, rebels surrounded a UN military encampment within the Golan Heights and clashes ensued. A different encampment was also surrounded by Nusra Front rebels but the UN peacekeepers were able to flee. Syrian rebel groups were able to take control of the Quneitra crossing on the border between Syria and the Israeli controlled part of the Golan Heights. During the occupation 44 Fijian troops were taken captive. Subsequently the rebels surrounded two other UN encampments.
At the Rwihana base just 1.5 miles from the Quneitra crossing al-Nusra fighters surrounded 40 Filipino peacekeepers and ordered them to surrender. Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said that more than 70 Filipino troops had escaped from the two areas that came under attack. General Gregorio Catapang said the Filipinos had returned fire and managed to escape only after a seven-hour siege.
The head of the Fijian army on Sunday said negotiations for release of the 44 Fijian troops "kidnapped" by rebels was ongoing but their location was unknown. A UN press office statement said. Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga of the Fijian Army said that they had assurances that the men were being well-treated:[quote"However, we are still very concerned that we cannot confirm at this stage their exact location, whether they are still in Syria or whether they have been moved to neighboring countries".
UNDOF was set up after the Golan Heights were seized by Israel during the Yom Kippur war.The Fijian and Philippine troops are serving with UNDOF in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Syria and Israel are still technically at war.
A commander with the Nusra front claims that the peacekeepers were being held because UNDOF was helping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In return for the release of the Fijians, Al-Nusra Front is said to be demanding the release of top Al Qaeda leader Mussab al-Suri.
The UN said that the Philippines has decided to pull out of UNDOF. Austria, Japan, and Croatia have already pulled their troops out of UNDOF because of the deteriorating security situation. The Philippine government will repatriate its 331 peacekeepers when their tour of duty ends in October.