The United Nations confirmed Thursday that an armed group captured 43 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, saying it was doing everything to secure their release.
“During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah,” the UN press office said in a statement.
“The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore the full freedom of movement of the force throughout its area of operation,” the statement said, adding that another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers were being restricted to their positions in the region.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in a 1967 war, and the countries technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalised in 1974.
UNDOF monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles (70 km) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. There are 1,223 UNDOF peacekeepers from six countries.
The force’s personnel come from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. The United Nations said this week that the Philippines has decided to pull out of UNDOF.
The UN statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups, including the Islamist militant al-Nusra Front, have been fighting the Syrian military near the Golan Heights. On Wednesday, opposition fighters captured a Golan Heights crossing point on the disputed border between Syria and Israel.
Blue-helmeted UN troops have been seized by militants several times during the Syrian conflict, now in its fourth year. In all those cases they were released safely.