Irish troops deployed to extract UN colleagues amid Golan Heights clashes

Irish troops on mission with the UNDOF in Syria (file photo via Irish Defence Forces)

Irish troops deployed with the UN peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights, Syria (UNDOF) have been involved in a number of missions to rescue UN colleagues under fire from rebel forces, a Defence Forces spokesperson has confirmed.

The Irish UN peacekeeper battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, was deployed yesterday and this morning, the spokesperson said.

Clashes in the area erupted on Wednesday 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 UN peacekeepers were holed up.

A gun battle began early today at the Rwihana base some 1.5 miles (2.3km) 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.

Officials said there were no casualties at the Rwihana base.

The Irish UN peacekeeper battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, was deployed this morning to secure a route out of the Breiqa encampment for 35 other Filipino soldiers.

No details were given as to whether the Irish troops came under fire during the operation, which was however described as a "robust deployment".

"Irish troops were deployed this morning to assist colleagues at a UN position that had been compromised by armed elements," the spokesperson said.

Describing the situation on the ground as 'volatile', the spokesperson said the Irish troops had been successful in securing a route to enable the Filipino troops withdraw to a reinforced UN position.

This morning's operation follows a similar deployment yesterday by Irish troops in the area to evacuate another, unnamed UN base.

"Irish personnel secured a route, provided security as UNDOF troops withdrew from a UN position and escorted them to the Force Headquarters in Camp Faouar," said a Defence Forces statement.

"The 44th Infantry Group remain on high alert, prepared for further taskings from the Force Commander.

"All Defence Forces personnel and equipment remain safe and accounted for.

"The 44th Infantry Group and Defence Forces Headquarters continue to monitor the situation."

An Israeli military spokesman confirmed that a number of UN peacekeepers entered Israel.

It was not immediately clear which rebel group was holding the Fijian UN peacekeepers, although it was likely to be the Nusra Front, said Syrian activist Abdurrahman.

The Nusra Front has recently seized hostages to exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.

The situation of the peacekeepers, tasked with monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel, remains “very, very fluid”, the UN secretary-general’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters yesterday at the UN headquarters in New York.

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

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has condemned the detention of the Fijians and called for their immediate release.

The UN mission, known as UNDOF, has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

Various rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.

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