Syrian rebels along the border with Israel have seized at least 43 members of a U.N. peacekeeping force who are permanently stationed along the Israel-Syria border.
A U.N. spokesman reached by phone confirmed the group had been taken on Thursday by rebels from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, and that another 81 peacekeepers were "currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah."
The peacekeepers were part of a contingency of several hundred Filipino troops currently stationed along the border between Israel and Syria.
Just last week, the Philippines Defense Ministry announced that it would repatriate more than 400 of its troops serving as U.N. peacekeepers in Syria and Liberia because of security threats.
"To ensure the safety and security of the Philippine military troops deployed to conflict-affected areas, the country's contingents in the Golan Heights and Liberia are scheduled to be repatriated within the year," the Defense Ministry said in a statement. "The 331-strong Filipino contingent serving as part of the United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights will be repatriated at the end of their tour of duty in October."
In 2013, a separate Syrian rebel group calling itself the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" briefly seized and then released 21 U.N. peacekeepers.
Members of al-Nusra have been fighting in the no-man's land between Israel and Syria for over a year, with battles occasionally spilling over as mortars and artillery rounds land in Israel. While al-Nusra made gains in the south, ISIS continued to make advances in the north of Syria, where it has established a stronghold over much of northern Syria and western Iraq.
On Wednesday, Israel declared the area around the Syrian border a no-man's land, after a Israeli military doctor and another soldier sustained injuries and a farm worker was lightly wounded by a mortar that landed in a kibbutz in the Golan Heights.
An Israeli intelligence officer based in the north said fighting had intensified over the last 24 hours, and that Syrian military jets could be seen hitting several rebel-held positions.
On Thursday, rebels released this video, filmed from a U.N. checkpoint along the border with Israel. The video, which clearly shows an Israeli flag on the horizon, is evidence that the group had managed to seize the Quneitra crossing point along the Syrian border, only 200 yards away from the nearest Israeli community.
Earlier, al-Nusra released this video showing the battles being fought around Quneitra crossing.
Al-Nusra had also used the Quneitra crossing earlier this week to release U.S. journalist Peter Theo Curtis into the hands of U.N. peacekeepers after he had been held by the group in Syria for nearly two years.
The captured Quneitra crossing is a strategic military position that brings al-Nusra one step closer to establishing a connection with the rebel-held southern city of Dara'a. If those two areas were linked, the rebels could threaten the Syrian capital of Damascus and several of the major highways leading into the city.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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