MANILA, Philippines – Syrian rebels holding dozens of Fijian U.N. peacekeepers hostage attacked Filipino troops in the Golan Heights on Saturday, Philippine officials said.
Philippine peacekeepers at one U.N. encampment were attacked, but those at another were "extricated," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters in a series of text messages, adding that the attack started early Saturday Syrian time.
Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told reporters, "There is an ongoing firefight, but all Filipinos are safe."
There were 40 Filipino troops in the encampment that came under attack, and 35 in the second, according to the Philippine military.
The Syrian rebels seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers on Thursday. The rebels then demanded that the 75 Filipinos manning two separate U.N. encampments 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) apart surrender their weapons, but they refused.
The situation of the peacekeepers, whose mission monitors a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel, remains "very, very fluid," the U.N. secretary-general's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters Friday at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
The U.N. said in a statement that it had received assurances from credible sources that the Fijian peacekeepers "are safe and in good health."
The statement added that they had been informed "the intention behind holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection."
In Australia on Saturday, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop condemned the detention of the Fijian peacekeepers and called for their release.
"As a member of the U.N. Security Council, Australia demands the unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers," Bishop said in a statement.
Bishop said she telephoned Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola to express Australia's strong support, including Australia's intelligence resources.
Bishop also said she assured them that Australia will use its position on the U.N. Security Council to maintain focus on this issue.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also has condemned the detention of the Fijians and called for their immediate release.
The U.N. mission, known as UNDOF, has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.
But the Philippine government said last week that it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ends in October, amid deteriorating security in the area. Various Syrian rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.