Trapped UN peacekeepers escape Islamist militants in Golan Heights

BY Carey Reed  August 31, 2014 at 12:56 PM EST
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Members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) wave as they drive their armored vehicle in the Golan Heights near the border crossing between Israel and Syria, on August 30, 2014. 40 UN peacekeepers from the Philippines escaped after being surrounded since Thursday by Islamic militants in southern Syria. Credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

40 United Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines escaped overnight after being surrounded since Thursday by Islamic militants in southern Syria, Reuters reports.

“We may call it the greatest escape,” Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang told reporters in Manila, according to the Associated Press.

The day before, 35 Filipino peacekeepers were rescued, following a firefight. The peacekeepers had been trapped by an al-Qaida linked group known as the Nusra Front. The group has been fighting the Syrian army in the area for the past several days.

Forty-four Fijian troops were captured at the same time. They remain in captivity in an unknown location, as negotiations for their release continue.

A Nusra Front commander told Reuters the Fijian peacekeepers had been detained because the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force troops were helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The peacekeepers are part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, a special force that has monitored the area since 1974, following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Last year, due to escalating violence in the area, several nations withdrew their troops. At that time, the U.N. and U.S. pleaded with the Philippines not to follow suit, according to the AP.

There are an estimated 1,223 peacekeepers in the zone from six countries.