Photo: Reuters
UN forces on Golan
Photo: Reuters

Al Nusra Front: We'll free UN peacekeepers in return for humanitarian aid

After 40, Filipino peacekeepers flee to Israel overnight, Syrian rebels claim to have reached deal to see additional 45 peacekeepers go free.

The al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front says it reached a deal to secure the release of a group of UN peacekeepers held captive in the Syira side of the Golan Heights, Al Jazeera reported Sunday.


The UN peacekeeping force was captured Thursday during fighting between rebels - some of which belong to the al-Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front - and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad over control of the border crossing with Israel and the Golan region; 40 peacekeepers fled into Israel last night, while an additional 44 remain in captivity.


According to the report, the group conditioned the release of the remaining 44 peacekeeping forces from Fiji on the transferring of humanitarian aid to the Ruta area of the embattled Syrian capital Damascus.


Fijian UN peacekeepers held by the rebels.
Fijian UN peacekeepers held by the rebels.


The head of the Fijian army said on Sunday negotiations for the release of 44 soldiers abducted by an al Qaeda-linked group on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights were being pursued as the United Nations said it had no word on the troops whereabouts.


"At this time, no additional information on their status or location has been established. The United Nations continues to actively seek their immediate and unconditional release," the UN press office said in a statement.


Fijian Army Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga told a media conference in Fiji that they "are continuing negotiations at all levels."


He said they had been assured that the men were being treated well and had come to no harm, he said.


"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 neighbouring countries," Tikoitoga said.


The Fijian and Philippine troops are serving with UNDOF in the Golan


Under the cover of darkness, 40 Filipino peacekeepers made a daring escape after being surrounded and coming under fire by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, the Philippine military chief said Sunday, while 44 Fijian troops remained in the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.


After coming under rebel attack Saturday, the first group of 35 Filipino peacekeepers was successfully escorted out of a UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles, Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang and other military officials said.


Another group of 40 Filipino troops had remained trapped at another encampment, called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp's gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds after the Filipinos refused to surrender with their weapons. Surrounded and besieged, the Filipinos returned fire in self-defense, Philippine military officials said.


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Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance at one point to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed, said Col. Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official who helped monitor the tense Golan standoff from the Philippine capital, Manila, and mobilize support for the besieged troops.


"Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours," Catapang said in a news conference in Manila, adding there were no Filipino casualties. "We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire."


The 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons from the Rwihana encampment under cover darkness overnight, traveling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours, before meeting up with other UN forces, which escorted them to safety early Sunday, Philippine officials said.


UN troops observing the Quneitra crossing (Photo: AFP) (Photo: AFP)
UN troops observing the Quneitra crossing (Photo: AFP)


During the siege, the Philippine secretaries of defense and foreign affairs, along with the country's top military brass, gathered in a crisis room at the military headquarters in the capital to communicate with the Filipino forces and help guide them out of danger. The Syrian and Israeli governments, along with the United States and Qatar, provided support, the Philippine military said without elaborating.


"We may call it the greatest escape," Catapang said.


In New York, The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, whose mission is to monitor a 1974 disengagement in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, reported that shortly after midnight local time, during a cease-fire agreed with the armed elements, all the 40 Filipino peacekeepers left their position and "arrived in a safe location one hour later."


The clashes in the UN-patrolled zone 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, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers.


The Quneitra border crossing (Photo: Efi Shrir)
The Quneitra border crossing (Photo: Efi Shrir)


The SITE Intelligence Group reported that the Nusra Front had 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 has withdrawn their peacekeepers due to the escalating violence.


UN observers, some escaped captivity, returning (Photo: Efi Shrir)
UN observers, some escaped captivity, returning (Photo: Efi Shrir)


Philippine officials said Filipino forces would remain in Golan until their mission ends in October, adding they would not be withdrawn prematurely following 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 peacekeepers' positions and the ongoing detention of the Fijian peacekeepers.


UN observers on the Golan border (Photo: Efi Shrir)
UN observers on the Golan border (Photo: Efi Shrir)


Ban demanded "the unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers." Security Council members, in a press statement, "insisted that UNDOF's mandate, impartiality, operations, safety, and security must be respected."


The Nusra Front has recently seized hostages to exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.


Associated Press contributed to this report


פרסום ראשון: 08.31.14, 17:59
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