Syrian rebels, government troops clash in Golan Heights near Israeli frontier, activists say

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BEIRUT — Syrian rebels clashed with government troops on Monday in the Golan Heights, where al-Qaida-linked insurgents abducted U.N. peacekeepers last week, activist said.

The fighting was focused around the town of Hamidiyeh in Quneitra province near the disputed frontier with Israel, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides but did not have exact figures.

Syria's state news agency said the military killed "many terrorists" and destroyed a heavy machine gun in the fighting. The government refers to those trying to oust President Bashar Assad as terrorists.

Heavy clashes have raged in the area since Syrian rebels captured a border crossing near the abandoned town of Quneitra on Wednesday. A day later, fighters from al-Qaida's Syria branch, the Nusra Front, abducted 45 Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded two Filipino contingents serving in the U.N. mission that monitors the buffer zone between Israel and Syria.

The Filipino troops escaped over the weekend, while the Fijians are still being held by the Nusra Front.

The United Nations says that it is seeking the Fijians' immediate an unconditional release. It says it has not established where the peacekeepers are being held.

The Nusra Front published a statement online on Sunday that included photos showing what it said were the captured Fijians, along with 45 identification cards. The group said the men were "in a safe place and in good health, and everything they need in terms of food and medicine is given to them."

The statement mentioned no demands or conditions for the peacekeepers' release.

The Nusra Front accused the U.N. of doing nothing to help the Syrian people since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. It said the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the U.N.'s ignoring "the daily shedding of the Muslims' blood in Syria" and even colluding with Assad's army "to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims" through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights.

The Nusra Front has recently seized hostages to exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.

The group is one of the two most powerful extremist factions fighting in Syria's civil war, which the U.N. says has killed more than 190,000 people. However, the Nusra Front has been eclipsed by the Islamic State group, which broke away from al-Qaida earlier this year and has since carved out a proto-state spanning the Syria-Iraq border.

Human Rights Watch said Monday that it has credible evidence that the Islamic State group has used ground-fired cluster munitions in at least one place in northern Syria. These weapons explode in the air, releasing hundreds of tiny bomblets. Those that fail to explode pose a long-lasting danger to civilians.

The New York-based rights group said that reports from local Kurdish officials as well as photographs indicate the extremists fired cluster munitions on July 12 and Aug. 14 during clashes with Kurdish forces around Ayn Arab near the Turkish border. Five people were killed in the attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

It was no clear how Islamic State fighters had acquired the weapons, the group said.

The Syrian government has used at least 249 cluster munitions since mid-2012, according to Human Rights Watch.

"Any use of cluster munitions deserves condemnation, but the best response is for all nations to join the treaty banning them and work collectively to rid the world of these weapons," said HRW's Steve Goose.

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