Rebels Storm Key Border Crossing Between Syria And Israel

The Syrian civil war has flared up in the south of the country, near the Israeli border. A group of Islamist fighters have now captured a border crossing between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights, which has long been monitored by United Nations peacekeeping forces.

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A group of Islamist fighters today detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers who monitor a border crossing between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights. The U.N. says dozens more of its forces can't move because the fighting is so intense. That's after the militants took control of the Syrian side of that crossing yesterday. NPR's Alice Fordham joins us from Beirut. And Alice, what exactly happened?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, a group, a kind of a loose coalition of Islamist armed groups - including the al-Qaida affiliate, it's called Jabhat al-Nusra - stormed this Quneitra border crossing yesterday, in the Golan area. As you said, it's a highly sensitive place. It's basically a demilitarized area between Syria and Israel.

The Syrian Air Force responded with air attacks. The Israelis responded with an artillery barrage, they said. But Jabhat al-Nusra today were posting pictures on social media of their fighters firing heavy artillery and hoisting their flags there.

SIEGEL: And explain how the U.N. comes into all this - the Quneitra crossing.

FORDHAM: Right. Well, so the U.N. really aren't the specific targets of the rebel fighters usually. But they happen to be there. As you say, they've monitored this border for more than 40 years, since the cease-fire at the end of the Arab-Israeli War. They have more than 1,000 soldiers there. So they say that 43 of their troops, in the course of this fighting - soldiers from Fiji - have been detained. The U.N. say they're not using the word hostages - and they're saying that deliberately at the moment because they're hoping there will be negotiations and they will be returned. And a further 81 troops, who are Filipino soldiers, are now restricted in their movements. And it seems that's because there's heavy fighting, ongoing there.

So the U.N. says they have had contact with the armed groups on the ground and that they're talking to them. But their spokesman, Stefan Dujaric, said today that the situation is extremely fluid and that they're very concerned about these peacekeepers.

SIEGEL: Now, these armed groups, this loose coalition of Islamists you spoke of - are they from that area of Syria?

FORDHAM: Well, it's quite unlikely that they are because actually, that part of Syria is mainly populated by people from the Druze minority and like lots of minorities, they're afraid of the Sunni extremists. In general, they side with President Bashar al-Assad. So these fighters are more likely to be from the South, maybe even from the area of Daraa, which is where the uprising started more than three years ago.

SIEGEL: Has this happened before, that the U.N. monitored crossing?

FORDHAM: Yes, it has. It happened twice in 2013, that U.N. peacekeepers were detained. At the time, the U.N. says that there were negotiations and that they were freed and were not aware that a ransom was paid. It may not be quite the same this time - that was in slightly earlier days. It was the Free Syrian Army who detained these peacekeepers, who were more moderate. The groups that have performed this abduction this time tend to be more extreme; to be more militant.

SIEGEL: What is this flare-up of the Syrian civil war around Quneitra, near the Golan Heights, what does it tell us about the war in Syria, at this point?

FORDHAM: I think it's an interesting reminder that there's so much going on in Syria beyond what we're hearing about a lot of the time, which is these ultra-extremists; the Islamic State who have taken over large parts of Syria and large parts of Iraq and their gruesome and brutal activities. But the Syrian government, in light of the Islamic State's advances, seems now to be trying to position itself as a possible partner for Western countries to combat this terror threat, as they describe it. And there are some people that would suggest that if that happened, then the situation would become much more stable. But I think that the actions of smaller, less influential Islamist groups conducting an operation like this are a reminder that there are large parts of Syria where the Islamic State is not in control, but where the Syrian government isn't in control either and hasn't been for a long time.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Alice.

FORDHAM: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Alice Fordham, speaking to us from Beirut.

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