SUVA, Fiji — Forty-four Fijian soldiers working as UN peacekeepers remained captive to a militant group in Syria Friday, while 75 Philippine soldiers were in tense standoff with the rebels, according to the two Pacific nations.
Fijian Commander Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said his soldiers were alive and unharmed, while Philippines President Benigno Aquino III said that although the situation remained tense, there was no reason to believe his troops faced immediate danger.
The events began Thursday morning on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an area divided between Israel and Syria.
Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels had converged on the Fijian camp at about 7:30 a.m.
He said the rebels demanded the Fijian soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. The Fijians were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location. He said he’s been told they were later transported back to their original post.
“We are all doing our best to ensure the safety of [those] that are currently being held captive,” Tikoitoga said.
Aquino III, who was traveling south of Manila, told a crowd that the situation involving the Filipino peacekeepers was “stable.”
Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said the rebels surrounded two encampments about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) apart occupied by Filipino peacekeepers and demanded that they give up their firearms, but the peacekeepers refused. “This resulted in a standoff,” he said, reading from a statement.
However, “the potential for deescalation is still positive,” he said. The military leadership in the Philippines was in direct communication with the peacekeepers, he added.
“Our soldiers are prepared, trained and capable of dealing with this situation and will take risks to fulfill our commitment to international security and peace. The peacekeeping contingent has the right to defend its position and the units in line with United Nations protocols and rules of engagement,” he said.
Col. Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philippine military’s Peacekeeping Operations Center, said the soldiers were armed with assault rifles, light machine guns and pistols and had enough ammunition to defend themselves.
“We have our rules of engagement, wherein we can use deadly force in defense of United Nations facilities,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fiji’s commander asked people from his nation to pray for their soldiers. Fiji has one of the world’s smaller militaries, comprising just 3,500 troops, of whom 434 had been sent to assist with peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.
The United Nations said initially that 43 Fijian soldiers had been detained and 81 Filipino peacekeepers had been effectively trapped after being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.
Fiji later clarified that 44 of its soldiers had been captured, while the Philippines military said 75 of its troops were trapped.
Fiji said it would not be pressured into withdrawing from its peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.
“We will not shy away from that responsibility under these circumstances,” Tikoitoga said. “We will continue to work very hard for the release of our men and at the same time we will put all our men on alert to ensure that no further incidents of this sort happen to them.”
The developments have come during a period of increased fighting between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.
The statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, have been fighting the Syrian military near the Golan Heights.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.