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Philippine forces escape siege in Golan Heights

Fijian troops still held by Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria

UN vehicles drove in Syria near a fence bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights Sunday. The head of the Fijian army said negotiations for the release of 44 soldiers seized on the Syrian side by an Al Qaeda-linked group were being pursued.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

UN vehicles drove in Syria near a fence bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights Sunday. The head of the Fijian army said negotiations for the release of 44 soldiers seized on the Syrian side by an Al Qaeda-linked group were being pursued.

BEIRUT — Under cover of darkness, 40 Philippine peacekeepers escaped their besieged outpost in the Golan Heights after a seven-hour gun battle with rebels from the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, Philippine officials said Sunday.

The Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, confirmed Sunday that it was still holding 44 Fijian troops who were captured in southern Syria.

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The escape of the Philippine troops and another entrapped group of Philippine peacekeepers marked a major step forward in a crisis that erupted Thursday when Syrian rebels began targeting the peacekeeping forces.

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the assaults on the international troops monitoring the Syrian-Israeli frontier, and has demanded the unconditional release of those still in captivity.

The crisis began after Syrian rebels overran the Quneitra crossing — located on the de facto border between Syrian- and Israeli-controlled parts of the Golan Heights — on Wednesday. A day later, insurgents from the Nusra Front seized the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded their Philippine colleagues, demanding they surrender.

The Filipinos, occupying two UN encampments, refused and fought the rebels Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of a UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces in 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.

At one point, Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed, said Colonel Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official who helped monitor the tense standoff from the Philippine capital, Manila, and mobilize support for the besieged troops.

‘‘Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours,’’ Philippine military chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang said, adding that there were no Filipino casualties. ‘‘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 nearly two hours before meeting up with other UN forces, who escorted them to safety early Sunday, Philippine officials said.

‘‘We may call it the greatest escape,’’ Catapang told reporters in Manila.

The Syrian and Israeli governments, along with the United States and Qatar, provided support, the Philippine military said, without elaborating.

In New York, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, whose mission is to monitor a 1974 disengagement in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, reported that shortly after midnight local time, during a cease-fire agreed with the armed elements, all 40 Filipino peacekeepers left their position and ‘‘arrived in a safe location one hour later.’’

The UN mission in the Golan Heights has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands, and the Philippines. A number of countries have withdrawn their peacekeepers because of the escalating violence.

With the Filipinos now safe, full attention turned to the Fijians who remain in captivity.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke with the prime minister of Fiji by telephone Sunday, and promised that the United Nations was ‘‘doing its utmost to obtain the unconditional and immediate release’’ of the Fijian peacekeepers, Ban’s office said.

In a statement posted online, the Nusra Front published a photo showing what it said were the captured Fijians and their identification cards. The statement mentioned no demands or conditions for the peacekeepers’ release.

The Nusra Front said it was holding 45 peacekeepers, although the United Nations had said 44 were being held, and the conflict could not immediately be explained.

The Nusra Front accused the United Nations of doing nothing to help the Syrian people since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. The war has killed more than 190,000 people over more than three years.

It said the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the United Nations 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’’ through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights.

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