Several U.N. military observers were briefly taken hostage by an unknown armed group in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights just three days after Syrian rebels released four U.N. peacekeepers, a U.N. official said on Thursday.
Early on Wednesday morning a group of men broke into a U.N. observation post and took three unarmed military observers, who were deployed by the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization to support the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNDOF, he said.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in a 1967 war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974. Israel and Syria are still technically at war.
The 1,000-strong UNDOF has the task of monitoring the area of separation between Syrian and Israeli forces, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles (70 km) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters the three military observers were held for about five hours on Wednesday before they were released unharmed. "They returned safely to U.N. Observation Post 52 where they were met by the UNDOF Head of Mission," he said.
Syria's two-year civil war has spilled into the zone, which had been largely quiet since the ceasefire. Stray shells and bullets have landed on the Israeli-controlled side and Israeli troops have fired shells into Syria in response.
Four Filipino peacekeepers were released on Sunday after they were held for five days by the rebel Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade, who said they held the soldiers for their own safety after clashes with Syrian troops had put them in danger.
The same rebel group held 21 Filipino peacekeepers for three days in March, giving the same reason for detaining them. While in November, a convoy of U.N. peacekeepers came under fire near the airport in Damascus.
"We have adjusted somewhat the operational posture of UNDOF," Ladsous said of the increased security risk. "We're in close contact with the troop contributors with a view to retaining their active support because they are crucial."
Japan and Croatia have withdrawn troops from UNDOF due to the violence, leaving troops from Austria, India and the Philippines. Fiji is likely to fill the gap, diplomats said. The Philippines and Austria have expressed concern about the risk to their troops from the Syrian conflict.