Irish troops ‘on high alert’ after rebels seize border in Syria

130 soldiers based in Golan Heights region on UN mission all ‘safe and accounted for’

Irish soldiers serving with the UN in Syria are on "high alert" after after Islamist rebels seized a border crossing in Syria on the demarcation line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

All Irish Defence Forces personnel and equipment remnain “safe and accounted for,” a spokesman said today.

There are some 130 Irish soldiers from the 44th Infantry Group based in Camp Faouar which is on the Syrian side of the UN-controlled 'area of separation', in the Golan Heights region on the border of Syria and Israel.

“The 44th Infantry Group continue to monitor the situation,” a Defences Forces spokesman said.

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“There have been a number of engagements between armed elements in the Golan Heights in the last 24 hours,” he said.

The incident took place some 15km away from Camp Faouar near the Quneitra observation post near the Israeli side of the border. A Defence Forces spokesman said these are bunkered positions to which soldiers can recede.

The soldiers of the 44th Infantry Group which have been in Golan Heights since March. They are part of United Nations Disengagement Observation Forces (UNDOF) .

The crossing is monitored by the United Nations, which oversees traffic between the two enemy countries, but the distance between the two warring adversaries’ posts is some 200 metres .

A UN spokeswoman earlier said the organisation’s peacekeepers could not confirm whether the rebels had seized the crossing, “as fighting is ongoing” at one of its gates.

The Islamist extremists, including Al-Qaeda linked group Al-Nusra Front, took over the Syrian side of the cross to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

During the fighting, two Israelis were wounded by stray bullets, a soldier and a civilian, both in the Golan Heights. Israel responded with artillery fire at two Syrian army positions, the Israeli military said yesterday.

Al Qaeda’s Syria wing Nusra alongside moderate rebel groups who had launched the attack early yesterday on the border post were “holding ground” despite the heavy bombardment, according to a source in the Islamist Beit al Maqdis brigade.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 Syrian soldiers and 14 rebel fighters were killed in the clashes. The organisation gathers information from all sides in the Syrian war.

“Irish forces are on high alert. It means more troops take a defensive posture.”

Next month the 46th Infantry group is set to take over from the 44th Infanty group of Irish soldiers

The soldiers will provide medical, technical and engineering support, patrolling the area of separation, checking roads and rough terrain for landmines, hidden bombs, snipers and other threats.

Yesterday Sgt Major Derek Lamb, the senior non-commissioned officer with the group said while the danger the unit would experience in the Golan Heights was very real, the 127 men and seven women had all been well trained and well briefed about their upcoming tour of duty.

Additional reporting Reuters

Genevieve Carbery

Genevieve Carbery

Genevieve Carbery is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty is an Irish Times journalist