MANILA/EIN ZIVAN, Golan Heights: Heavy fighting erupted Monday between the Syrian army and Islamist rebels on the Golan Heights, where 44 peacekeepers from Fiji are being held by militants and scores of their fellow blue helmets from the Philippines escaped after resisting capture.
Syria’s three-year civil war reached the frontier with Israeli-occupied territory last week when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.
The fighters also turned against the U.N. blue helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the cease-fire line for 40 years. After the 44 Fijians were captured 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 Saturday and 40 escaped from the other position early 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, Syria’s affiliate of Al-Qaeda, says it is holding them because the United Nations force protects Israel.
A senior Gulf official and a rebel commander close to Nusra Front said Qatar was acting as a mediator in talks to secure the Fijians’ release.
It was not immediately clear Monday whether forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad had managed to retake control of the Qunaitra crossing from the Nusra Front rebels.
Persistent gunshots and explosions from mortar bombs and other munitions could be heard on the Israeli-occupied side of the frontier and combatants could be clearly seen targeting each other with their weapons.
At least one tank belonging to the Syrian army was also involved 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 Qunaitra 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 Filipino army chief, General Gregorio Catapang, said his men had defended themselves in defiance of an order from their U.N. 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.
However, a senior United Nations official said no order to surrender their weapons had been given to the Filipinos.
Elsewhere, warplanes struck the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar for a fifth straight day of heavy bombardment, the Britain-based Observatory and activists said.
In the east, an airstrike against the provincial governor’s office in Deir al-Zor, now being used by ISIS militants as a headquarters, injured an ISIS leader and a number of fighters, the Observatory said.
In eastern Homs province, regime troops and paramilitaries killed at least six ISIS fighters in a skirmish, it added.
In the city of Homs, a funeral was held for 39 security personnel and guards from the Shaar gas field in the eastern part of the province, killed last month when ISIS fighters briefly seized the facility.
Their bodies were recently discovered by regime troops, the Observatory said.
Fierce clashes between regime and rebel forces were reported around the Wadi Deif and Hamidieh military bases in Idlib province, where insurgents have mounted a bid to storm the areas.
The Observatory also said that air raids by government forces hunting suspected ISIS infiltrators in Hassakeh have sparked an exodus of more than 60,000 civilians in three days.
Separately, the Observatory said three officers, including a general, were executed for “treason and causing the deaths of” army troops.
A pro-regime activist news outlet claimed that the three were allegedly guilty of collaborating with rebel groups in Hama province, and that investigations were continuing with a number of other officers.