BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels have issued three demands for the release of 45 Fijian peacekeepers they’ve held captive for five days, Fiji’s military commander said Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said that the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front wanted to be taken off the UN terrorist list, wanted humanitarian aid delivered to parts of the Syrian capital Damascus, and wanted compensation for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shootout with UN officers.
Tikoitoga said the UN has sent hostage negotiators to Syria.
The al-Nusra Front abducted the Fijian soldiers Thursday morning and was holding them at an unknown location. The rebels also surrounded two Filipino units serving in the UN mission that monitors the buffer zone between Israel and Syria, but the Filipino troops escaped over the weekend.
The Syrian rebels clashed with government troops on Monday in the Golan Heights, activists said.
The fighting was focused around the town of Hamidiyeh in Quneitra province near the 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.
Heavy clashes have raged in the area since Syrian rebels captured a border crossing near the abandoned town of Quneitra on Wednesday.
The rebels’ targeting of the UN mission has touched off criticism among some nations contributing troops to the peacekeeping force about how the Golan Heights operation functions.
Ireland, which contributes a 130-member armored rapid response unit to the UN mission, warned Monday it would not replace its troops next month if UN leaders in New York do not agree on strengthening the force’s firepower, command and control, and rules of engagement.
“I’ve made it very clear that I’m not going to continue to commit Irish troops to this mission unless there’s a very fundamental review of how it’s going to operate. Clearly this is no longer a demilitarized zone,” Irish Defense Minister Simon Coveney told RTE state radio in Dublin.
“We need to get a significant reassurance from the UN, and the Syrian side, that we can operate a mission safely. The risk levels, given what’s happened over the last three days, are not acceptable.”
He said Irish troops in armored vehicles exchanged fire with rebels Saturday as they rescued Filipino troops from one of the besieged border posts. The Indian-led, 1,250-member force includes soldiers from Fiji, India, Nepal, the Philippines and the Netherlands.
Coveney said the Irish unit remained on standby for a potential rescue of the seized Fijian troops. Ireland’s current military deployment has been in the Golan Heights since March and is supposed to be replaced by other Irish soldiers next month.
An Irish withdrawal could deal a final blow to the UN mission, which has already seen Austria and Croatia pull their forces last year over fears they would be targeted. The Philippines, meanwhile, has said it would bring home its peacekeepers after their tour of duty ends in October.
The group that abducted the peacekeepers, the al-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.”
The al-Nusra Front accused the UN 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 UN’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 group is one of the two most powerful extremist factions fighting in Syria’s civil war, which the UN says has killed more than 190,000 people. However, the al-Nusra Front has been eclipsed by the Islamic State group, which broke away from al-Qaeda earlier this year and has since carved out a proto-state spanning the Syria-Iraq border.
Human Rights Watch said Monday that it had 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 indicated the extremists fired cluster munitions on July 12 and August 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 not 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.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.