Over the weekend, Irish peacekeepers operating in the Golan Heights rescued Filipino troops who were being held captive by the al Qaeda linked group Jabhat Al-Nusra, Garreth MacNamee of the Irish Mirror reports.
Al-Nusra had trapped 81 Filipino peacekeepers in their bases last week, while kidnapping an additional 45 Fijian peacekeepers.
The Filipinos managed to escape from their base and were rescued by Irish peacekeepers before Al-Nusra managed to recapture the force. The Irish troops engaged the Nusra rebels from armoured vehicles while successfully providing the fleeing Filipino peacekeepers with an exit route. The Irish then escorted the Filipinos to the UNDOF Force Headquarters in Camp Faouar.
Willie Penrose, a former Irish member of parliament, said that Irish troops acted with “bravery, skills and competence” after the 130-strong force engaged in a gun battle with Al-Nusra.
The Fijian peacekeepers are still currently being held by the rebels. However, the Irish troops are maintaining a standby position in the event that they conduct a further search and rescue mission for the Fijian soldiers.
All of the UN peacekeepers were part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which was mandated to enforce a demilitarized buffer zone between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights following the end of the Yom Kippur War.
However, the Syrian rebels have increasingly began to target UN peacekeepers as a way of generating publicity for their demands. In March of 2013, Islamist rebels from the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade detained about 20 peacekeepers as a way of trying to pressure Assad from removing his forces from a village.
Al-Nusra has demanded that in return for the release of the Fijian peacekeepers, the militant group be removed from the UN terror list, humanitarian aid must be delivered to parts of Damascus, and compensation be provided for the death of three Al-Nusra fighters in a shootout with the UN.
This latest seizure of peacekeepers by rebel fighters has prompted Ireland to reconsider committing troops to the border.
“I’ve made it very clear that I’m not going to continue to commit Irish troops to this mission unless there’s a very fundamental review of how it’s going to operate. Clearly this is no longer a demilitarized zone,” Irish Defence Minister Simon Coveney said.
Unless Ireland is given reassurances from the UN and from Syria that peacekeepers will be safe, Ireland will not continue sending forces to the region. Austria and Croatia have already pulled their peacekeepers from the Golan Heights last year, raising concerns that the UNDOF force may collapse.
This removal of UN troops from the demilitarized Golan Heights could further fuel instability in the region, as fighting from the Syrian civil war could more easily spread over the border into Israel.
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