OCCUPIED JERUSALEM/MANILA: The Israeli military said Sunday that it shot down a drone that entered Israeli-controlled airspace from Syria, heightening tensions in the volatile Golan Heights.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the aircraft apparently belonged to the Syrian military and accidentally crossed over into the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan. It was shot down with a Patriot missile.
“We have repeatedly stated that we will respond to any breach of Israel’s sovereignty and will continue to act to maintain safety and security,” Lerner said.
The military said the incident occurred near Qunaitra, the main crossing point between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan.
The development came after 40 Filipino peacekeepers made a daring nighttime escape after being surrounded and under fire for seven hours by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, Philippine officials said, leaving 44 Fijian troops still in the hands of the Nusra Front.
“We may call it the greatest escape,” Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said.
The peacekeepers became trapped after Syrian rebels entered the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone between Syria and Israel last week, seizing 44 Fijian soldiers and demanding that their Filipino colleagues surrender. The Filipinos, occupying two U.N. encampments, refused and fought the rebels Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was successfully escorted out of a U.N. encampment in the village of Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles.
The remaining 40 peacekeepers were besieged at the second encampment, called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp’s gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds. The Filipinos returned fire in self-defense, Philippine military officials said.
Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed, said Col. Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official. “Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours,” Catapang told reporters. “We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire.”
As night fell and a cease-fire took hold, the 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons, traveling across the chilly hills for two hours before meeting up with other U.N. forces, who escorted them to safety early Sunday, officials said.
The Syrian and Israeli governments, along with the United States and Qatar, provided support, the Philippine military said without elaborating.
In a statement posted on militant websites Sunday, the Nusra Front confirmed that it had seized the Fijians and posted a photo showing what it said were the soldiers, along with 45 identification cards. The group said the men “are in a safe place and in good health, and everything they need in terms of food and medicine is given to them.” The statement mentioned no demands or conditions for the peacekeepers’ release.
The Nusra Front accused the U.N. of doing nothing to help the Syrian people since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. It said the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the U.N.’s ignoring “the daily shedding of the Muslims’ blood in Syria” and even colluding with Assad’s army “to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims.”
In Syria, 15 government airstrikes targeted the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar as fierce clashes pitting regime forces and rebels raged in the area, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain. Also, at least one person was killed in the capital by rebel mortar bombs, which struck the Sheraton Hotel in Umayyad Square and at least two other neighborhoods.