Talks bid to free UN peacekeepers

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The plight of dozens of captured United Nations peacekeepers in Syria remains “very, very fluid”, the secretary general’s spokesman said, as talks aimed at their release continue.

Some radio contact has been made with the 72 peacekeepers from the Philippines who have been restricted to their positions, Stephane Dujarric said. Another 44 peacekeepers from Fiji remain detained.

The UN said it “has received assurances from credible sources” that the Fijian peacekeepers “are safe and in good health”.

The statement added that they had been informed “the intention behind holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection”.

The UN has not said exactly who is holding the peacekeepers, whose mission monitors a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel. Various Syrian rebel groups have been engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian military in and near the Golan Heights.

Mr Dujarric said the peacekeepers were being held by “non-state armed actors” who identify as the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

He said talks continued “with a wide range of parties within Syria” and UN member states who may have influence with them, but details remained sketchy.

“Those who are being held have food and water for some time,” he said. “At this very point, it is not an extreme concern.”

Both the Philippines and Fiji remained hopeful the impasse could be resolved without bloodshed.

Fijian commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga said he had been informed his soldiers are unharmed, although he had not been able to contact them directly.

Philippines president Benigno Aquino said that while the situation was tense, there was no reason to believe his troops faced immediate danger.

The events began on Thursday morning on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an area divided between Israel and Syria.

Brig Gen Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels converged on the Fijian camp at about 7.30am.

He said the rebels demanded the Fijian soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. They were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location. He said he was told they were later taken back to their original post.

“We are all doing our best to ensure the safety of (those) that are currently being held captive,” he said.

Brig Gen Domingo Tutaan of the Philippine military said the rebels surrounded two encampments about 2.5 miles apart occupied by Filipino peacekeepers and demanded that they give up their firearms, but the peacekeepers refused. “This resulted in a stand-off,” he said.

However, “the potential for de-escalation is still positive”, he said, and the military leadership in the Philippines was in direct communication with the peacekeepers.

Col Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philippine military’s Peacekeeping Operations Centre, 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.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon condemned the detention of the Fijians and called for their immediate release.

The UN mission, known as UNDOF, has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

The Philippine government said last week it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ended in October amid the deteriorating security.

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,” Brig Gen Tikoitoga said.

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