Plight of dozens of U.N. peacekeepers in Syria remains uncertain

More than 100 peacekeepers are being held at an undisclosed location for their own protection

The plight of dozens of U.N. peacekeepers in Syria remained “very, very fluid” Friday, the secretary-general’s spokesman said, as talks aimed at their release stretched into a second day.

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

On Friday evening, the U.N. said in a statement 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.”

Kate Brandli, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Department Peacekeeping Operations, could not offer further clarification beyond confirming they have not been released.

The U.N. 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.

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

He said talks continue “with a wide range of parties within Syria” and U.N. member states who may have influence with them. Details remained sketchy, he added.

“Those who are being held have food and water for some time,” Dujarric 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 Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said he’s been informed his soldiers are unharmed, although he hasn’t been able to contact them directly. Philippines President Benigno Aquino III said that while the situation was 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 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.

Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan with the Philippine military said the rebels surrounded two encampments about 4 kilometres (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 de-escalation is still positive,” he said. The military leadership in the Philippines was in direct communication with the peacekeepers, he added.

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 defence of United Nations facilities,” he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the detention of the Fijians and called for their immediate release.

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

But the Philippine government last week said it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ends 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,” Tikoitoga said.




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