The Fijian military said Sunday that it was pursuing negotiations with the Syrian Islamic rebel group which kidnapped 44 UNDOF peacekeepers in the Syrian Golan Heights Thursday, but still had not received word on where the soldiers were being held.
Fiji has been told that the men were unharmed and were being treated well, but “we still at this stage cannot confirm the exact location of our troops. We are continuing negotiations at all levels,” said Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga, head of the Fijian army, according to a Reuters report.
“However, we are still very concerned that we cannot confirm at this stage their exact location, whether they are still in Syria or whether they have been moved to neighboring countries,” the general added.
Tikoitoga’s comments came after 40 Filipino peacekeepers made a daring escape after being surrounded and under fire for seven hours by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights on Sunday, leaving the 44 Fijian troops in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
The peacekeepers became trapped after Syrian rebels entered the UN-patrolled buffer zone between Syria and Israel this past week, seizing the Fijian soldiers and demanding that their Filipino colleagues surrender. The Filipinos, occupying two UN encampments, refused and clashed with the rebels on Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of a UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces in armored vehicles.
As night fell and a ceasefire took hold, a further 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons, traveling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours before meeting up with other UN forces, who escorted them to safety inside Israel early Sunday, Philippine officials said.
The clashes erupted after Syrian rebel groups — including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — overran the Quneitra crossing on the frontier between Syrian- and Israeli-controlled parts of the Golan on Wednesday and seized the 44 Fijians.
The SITE Intelligence Group reported that the Nusra Front posted a statement on its Twitter account Saturday taking responsibility for detaining the Fijian peacekeepers. The Nusra Front stated that the Fijian detainees “are in a safe place, and they are in good health, and that we have given them what they need of food and treatment.”
The Nusra Front also posted a photo showing what it said were the captured Fijians in their military uniforms along with 45 identification cards, SITE said.
SITE added that the Nusra Front claimed the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the UN’s ignoring “the daily shedding of the Muslims’ blood in Syria” and even colluding with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army “to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims” through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights. The SITE report could not be independently confirmed.
The UN mission has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. A number of countries had previously withdrawn their peacekeepers due to the escalating violence.
Philippine officials said Filipino forces would remain in Golan until their mission ends in October despite the rebel attacks and the capture of the Fijian peacekeepers.
Both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council strongly condemned Saturday’s attack on the peacekeepers’ positions and the ongoing detention of the Fijian peacekeepers.
The Nusra Front has recently seized hostages to exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.