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Two shells fired from Syria explode on Golan; battles rage in Quneitra
By YAAKOV LAPPIN,REUTERS
09/01/2014
Syrian army forces and rebels battle near border; both sides seek to control Quneitra border crossing; UN peacekeepers held captive by Islamists still missing.
 
Two mortar shells fired from Syria exploded in Israeli territory on Monday as fighting between rebels and the Assad regime’s military raged in the Quneitra area.

Both explosions are likely the result of stray fire. On Monday morning, a mortar shell fell in the region of Ein Zivan on the Golan Heights, and in the afternoon a second shell exploded in Israel close to the international border near Quneitra.

There were no damages or injuries in either incident.

The IDF continues to closely monitor developments across the border. Heavy fighting between Syrian Army forces and rebels raged on Monday, but it was unclear whether one of the sides had gained an advantage to control a key frontier crossing.



Forty-four UN peacekeepers from Fiji are still being held by terrorists, and scores of their fellow blue helmets from the Philippines escaped after resisting capture.

Last week Islamist fighters overran the Quneitra border- crossing in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians on the Golan Heights since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The fighters turned against the UN blue helmets, who are part of a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the cease-fire line for 40 years.

After the 44 Fijians were captured on Thursday, more than 70 Filipinos were besieged at two locations for two days.

All the Filipinos reached safety over the weekend. Thirty-two were rescued from one outpost on Saturday and 40 escaped from the other position early on Sunday while rebels were sleeping after a seven-hour firefight.

Fiji says it is negotiating the release of its 44 troops. The United Nations says it is not sure where they are being held. The Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida, said it is holding them because the UN force protects Israel.

Persistent gunshots and explosions from mortar shells and other munitions could be heard on the Israeli side of the frontier and combatants could be clearly seen targeting one another with their weapons.

Residents of communities in the area told Channel 2 that the constant sound of war from over the border and the presence of al-Qaida- affiliated fighters raised real security concerns.

At least one tank belonging to the Syrian Army became involved in the fighting, and some rebels could be seen a few meters away from the frontier fence.

A large Syrian flag that had been flying for days between the Quneitra crossing and the abandoned town was taken down and a United Nations position in the area, thought to be unmanned, was pounded with mortar shells.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in the Syrian civil war, said the Nusra Front and allied fighters were battling government forces near the Quneitra crossing and in the nearby village of al-Hamiydiah.

The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides.

The Nusra Front’s aim appeared to be “to end once and for all the regime’s presence in the area, and it also appears that the goal is to expel the international observers,” Observatory founder Rami Abdelrahman said.

The UN peacekeeping force in the area – the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) – includes 1,223 troops from India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands as well as the Fijians and Filipinos who came under attack last week.

The Filipino blue helmets had been besieged in outposts known as positions 68 and 69 until their rescue from one on Saturday and escape from the other early on Sunday morning. The United Nations said both Syria and Israel helped in the rescue.

The Filipino army chief, Gen.

Gregorio Catapang, said his men had defended themselves in defiance of an order from their UN commander, who had told them to surrender their weapons to prevent harm befalling the captured Fijians.

“The UNDOF commander wants to save the Fijians at the expense of the Philippines,” Catapang told reporters at the main army base in Manila after speaking to Filipino soldiers on the Golan Heights by Skype.

“We are not at fault if the Fijians were captured. They surrendered their guns. I was telling the UNDOF commander to save first the Philippines and then we will help the Fijians. After all, they were already captured. There is no assurance that if we surrender our weapons, we will not be captured, so the UNDOF commander will have a bigger problem,” he said.

He added that there was nothing in the rules of engagement that provided for the Filipinos to surrender their weapons, and he fully supported the decision of the Filipino commander on the ground to defy the order to give up his guns.

The United Nations has announced that the Philippines will pull out of UNDOF. Austria, Japan and Croatia have also pulled their troops out of the force because of the deteriorating security situation as the civil war in Syria reaches the Golan.

On Sunday, the Israel Air Force, using a Patriot surface-to-air missile, shot down a drone that had strayed into Israeli airspace from Syria’s Quneitra region.

Army sources said the drone likely belonged to the Assad regime and was collecting intelligence from Quneitra.

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