By Baz Ratner and Lincoln Feast
Islamist fighters who seized dozens of Fijian soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week are demanding that their group be removed from a global terrorism list and that compensation be paid for members killed in fighting, the head of Fiji’s army said on Tuesday.
Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga said negotiations had been stepped up between the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and a new UN negotiation team now in place in Syria.
“The rebels are not telling us where the troops are, but they continue to reassure us they are being well-looked after,” Tikoitoga told media in Suva. “They also told us they are ensuring that they are taken out of battle areas.”
Heavy fighting erupted on Monday between the Syrian army and Islamist rebels near where 45 Fijian peacekeepers were captured and scores of their fellow blue helmets from the Philippines escaped after resisting capture. The number of Fijians captured had previously been put at 44.
Syria’s three-year civil war reached the frontier with Israeli-controlled territory last week when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.
The fighters then turned on the UN blue helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line for 40 years. After the Fijians were captured on Thursday, more than 70 Filipinos spent two days besieged at two locations before reaching safety.
The Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, says it is holding the peacekeepers because the UN force protects Israel.
Tikoitoga said the group was demanding compensation for three fighters killed in the confrontation with the UN peacekeepers, as well as humanitarian assistance to the people of Ruta, a stronghold of the group on outskirts of Damascus, and the removal of the organisation from the UN list of banned terrorist organisations.
“We’ve been assured by UN headquarters that the UN will bring all its resources to bear to ensure the safe return of our soldiers,” the Fijian army chief said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in the Syrian civil war, said the Nusra Front and allied fighters were battling government forces near the Quneitra crossing and in the nearby village of al-Hamiydiah.
The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides. Observatory founder Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters the Nusra Front’s aim appeared to be “to end once and for all the regime’s presence in the area and it also appears that the goal is to expel the international observers”.
The UN peacekeeping force in the area, known as UNDOF, includes 1,223 troops from India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands as well as the Fijians and Filipinos who came under attack last week.
The United Nations has announced that the Philippines will pull out of UNDOF. Austria, Japan and Croatia have also pulled their troops out of the force because of the deteriorating security situation as the civil war in Syria reaches the Golan.