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Syrian rebels attack peacekeepers in Golan Heights

BEIRUT -- Clashes erupted between al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels and U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Saturday after the militants surrounded their encampment, activists and officials said, as the international organization risked being sucked further into the conflict.

Other U.N. peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, they said.

The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing — located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights — on Wednesday, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers.

The Nusra Front also surrounded the nearby Rwihana and Breiqa encampments, where other U.N. peacekeepers were holed up.

The gunbattle began early Saturday at the Rwihana base some 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometers) from Quneitra, where 40 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by Nusra fighters who were ordering them to surrender, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Philippines' Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin gave a similar account but did not name the armed group.

Abdurrahman, whose information comes from a network of activists throughout Syria, said he was not aware of any fatalities among the 40 Filipino peacekeepers in the Rwihana encampment as sporadic fighting continued throughout the day. A Philippine military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, also said there were no casualties.

The 35 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment were extracted on Saturday morning, with the assistance of Irish peacekeepers who rushed to the scene, said officials.

The Irish U.N. peacekeeper battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, evacuated all the Filipino U.N. peacekeepers on Saturday morning, said a military official who spoke on condition that his name and country of origin not be revealed, citing army policy.

He said there was no shooting involved, and no injuries. He said that the Irish battalion also evacuated another base on Friday but provided no further details.

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U.N. peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, also known as UNDOF, observe Syria's Quneitra province at an observation point on Mt. Bental in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, overlooking the border with Syria, Friday, Aug. 29.

(AP)

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