43 Fijian peacekeepers captured in Syria

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 18:58 29/08/2014
RONEN ZVULUN / Reuters

Militants are seen on the Syrian side near the Quneitra border crossing between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syria on Thursday (local time).

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Talks are underway to release 43 Fijian peacekeepers taken hostage by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.

The Pacific nation's Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama says the peacekeepers are believed to be safe and his government's working closely with the United Nations to secure their release.

The Fijians, who were on duty in a UN-patrolled zone, were taken hostage by about 150 Syrian rebels yesterday.

A UN spokesman in New York, Stephane Dujarric, said 43 Fijian soldiers were being held by rebels. Another 81 United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeepers from the Philippines were being restricted to their positions near Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah, Dujarric said.

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"During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah," the UN press office 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. On Wednesday, opposition fighters captured a Golan Heights crossing point on the disputed border between Syria and Israel.

Fiji Military commander General Mosese Tikoitoga told a press conference in Suva this morning that the Fijians were safe and well, and being detained at a place known as Position 27.

He said that at 7.30am three vehicle-loads of armed people approached the main border gate and demanded the UN soldiers leave.

The troops tried to leave but were stopped by the rebels, then driven to another, unknown location.

"That was the last moment that we were able to converse with our troops," he said.

Tikoitoga declined to name the captured soldiers.

Fiji has 434 troops on the Golan Heights currently.

The Security Council condemned the detention of the 43 peacekeepers and the restriction of movement of the other 81 and called for their immediate release. A rapidly drafted press statement blamed "Security Council-designated terrorist groups" and "members of non-state armed groups."

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the detainment of the UN detachment.

"This is a force that is responsible for peacekeeping around the world, and certainly we don't think they should be a target of these type of efforts," Psaki said.

The UN said in the statement that it was making every effort to secure the release of the captured peacekeepers. It did not identify the captors, but it appeared likely that they were rebel fighters. A number of peacekeepers from the same UN mission were held by rebels last year and later released unharmed.

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Syrian rebels and government forces have been clashing in the area, especially around Quneitra, the only border crossing between Syria and the Israeli-held territory. On Wednesday, fighters from a number of Syrian rebels groups, including the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, wrested control of the crossing from Syrian government forces.

Anti-government activists in the area who work with the rebels were not available for comment.

UNDOF monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 kilometres from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. There are 1223 UNDOF peacekeepers from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines. The force has been monitoring a ceasefire and military disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria in the area since 1974.

Before the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, the region was generally quiet and the peacekeepers had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

Fighting continued in the border region on Thursday. The Syrian government mounted airstrikes and killed at least three rebels, bringing the total opposition death toll in the battle to 16 since Wednesday. The government did not comment on the fighting near the border crossing or say whether any of its soldiers had been killed.

- Stuff.co.nz, AAP, Reuters

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