Fighting breaks out in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

UN says it has ‘received assurances’ that Fijian peacekeepers are safe and in good health

A firefight erupted today between a group of Philippine peacekeepers trapped in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Islamist militants who were surrounding their position, the defence chief of the Philippines said.

About 40 Philippine troops manning one of two camps on the Syrian side of the frontier, identified as camp 68, came under attack at around 6am local time, Voltaire Gazmin told reporters via a mobile phone text message.

Another defence official said all the Philippine troops were safe.

A further 35 Philippines troops were at another site, known as camp 69, about 2.5 km away but were not engaged in the firefight.

The troops are part of UNDOF, a UN force that has monitored the disengagement zone between Israel and Syria since 1974 in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

UN officials are trying to establish the whereabouts of 44 Fijian peacekeepers, also part of UNDOF, seized by al Qaeda-linked militants this week along the rocky frontier between Syria and the Golan Heights.

The Philippine troops, however, have held their ground for about 48 hours and have refused to give up their arms to the militants.

“There was a firefight but I would like to assure everyone that our troops are safe at the moment,“ said Ramon Zagala, chief of the Armed Forces public affairs office. He did not give any more details.

The Fijian peacekeepers were captured from their post about eight kilometres away from the Philippine troops.

The UN said it “has received assurances from credible sources” that the Fijian peacekeepers “are safe and in good health”.

The statement added that they had been informed “the intention behind holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection”.

The UN has not said exactly who is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.

Both the Philippines and Fiji remained hopeful the impasse could be resolved without bloodshed.