Rebels fighting the Syrian Army detained 43 UNDOF peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the UN said on Thursday.
The opposition fighters, including from the Nusra Front – al-Qaida’s fighting organization in Syria – seized the Quneitra crossing on the border with Israel on Wednesday and held it on Thursday. Rebel forces now control most of the Quneitra region.
The Nusra Front had control of the UN peacekeepers, according to reports.
Syrian rebels posted video footage of the captured border crossing amid reports on Thursday of heavy strikes by the Syrian air force on the frontier post.
The footage shows the rebels within 200 meters of Israeli territory.
In one video, shot during the fighting, rebels are seen firing at Syrian government forces from a UN border post.
“During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the Area of Separation [between Israel and Syria] 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 Quneitra,” the UN press office said.
Islamist factions Ahrar a-Sham and Jama’a Bayit al-Maqdis, and Free Syrian Army Brigades were also involved in the capture of the Quneitra post, according to the Facebook page of one of the Free Syrian Army factions, Liwa Fallujah Hauran.
Syrian jets shelled rebel positions near Quneitra, in some of the heaviest clashes in the strategic area this year, rebels and residents said on Thursday.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz visited the newly established 210th Division (the regional Bashan Division), stationed on the Golan Heights, and toured the border region. He was briefed by division commander Brig.-Gen.
Ofek Buchris, and the commander of the Golani Brigade, Col. Guy Shifran, at the army’s post on Mount Avital.
He also met with members of a regional field intelligence unit. The chief of staff then visited nearby Kibbutz Ein Zivan and spoke to a man whose business was damaged by a Syrian shell on Wednesday.
The Nusra Front, alongside more moderate rebel groups who had launched the attack early on Wednesday on the Quneitra crossing, were “holding ground” despite the heavy bombardment, a source in the Islamist Bayit al-Maqdis faction said.
Abu Iyas al-Horani, a spokesman for another opposition group operating in the area, said at least six rebels were killed in the latest spillover of violence in the area that lies almost 20 km. west of the town of Quneitra, the main urban center in the area, which is under state control.
The crossing is monitored by the United Nations, which oversees traffic between Israel and Syria.
On Wednesday, two Israelis were wounded by stray cross-border fire, a soldier and a civilian, both on the Golan Heights. Israel responded with artillery fire at two Syrian Army positions.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 Syrian soldiers and 14 rebel fighters were killed in the battle by Thursday.
Hundreds of Nusra Front fighters who were driven out of the eastern Deir a-Zor province earlier this year by their rival, Islamic State, have regrouped in southern Syria, boosting a growing rebel presence in that area, activists said.
Earlier this year, the Nusra Front and its allies seized several army bases near the town of Nawa, one of the biggest rebel gains in the south during the three years of Syria’s war.
Rebels say a stretched Syrian Army fighting on several fronts that has already lost control of large parts of the on the border with Jordan.
The southern front’s potential as a launching pad for an offensive against Damascus means it could ultimately pose the main challenge to President Bashar Assad.
UNDOF monitors the Area of Separation between Israel and Syria, a narrow strip of land running 70 km. from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmuk River frontier with Jordan.
Peacekeepers have been caught in the middle of fighting between Syrian troops and rebels in the Area of Separation.
Two groups of Philippine peacekeepers were captured and released by Syrian rebels last year.
Last year, the IDF mobilized the Bashan Division to the border with Syria, rotating away the 36th Armored Division (the Ga’ash Formation) that had been responsible for the sector for the past 40 years. The division has spent months training intensively to familiarize itself with the border. It has been mastering the IDF’s intelligence and firepower capabilities that may be needed to deal with threats from Syria.
Senior military sources said the division’s enhanced capabilities will make the border more stable, due to its ability to prevent or quickly respond to and contain security incidents.
It thereby minimizes the chances of a border attack spiraling out of control and developing into a wider conflict.
In addition to its firepower and intelligence, the IDF is working on the division’s ability to carry out a ground maneuver in enemy territory.
The revisions are part of preparations for defending the Golan Heights from growing radicalism and anarchy raging across the northern border.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.