Fiji revealed for the first time yesterday demands being made by rebels in syria who took more than 40 UN peacekeepers hostage in the Golan Heights last week.
The Pacific nation’s army head Mosese Tikoitoga said the rebels wanted their organization, the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, to be removed from the UN’s list of terrorist organizations.
He said they also wanted humanitarian aid sent to a small town that is an al-Nusra stronghold just outside Damascus and were demanding compensation for three of their fighters who had been hurt in recent days.
“These are the official demands that are being quoted to the UN for the release of our boys,” Tikoitoga told reporters in Suva.
Unconfirmed reports in Fijian media said the hostage takers were also demanding the release of Abu Mussab al-Suri, also known as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, an al-Qaeda leader who was arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and is now being held by Syrian authorities.
Tikoitoga said there were 45 troops in the captured peacekeeping deployment, not 44 or 43 as authorities originally stated. He released the names of the soldiers and said the Fijian government was operating a crisis center for their families in Suva.
“I’m asking and I’m appealing to the public to help and be sensitive to the families in this difficult time and give them encouraging words and give them the support they need,” he said.
The military commander said a UN team had arrived in the Golan Heights from New York to take over negotiations with the rebels and every effort was being used to secure their freedom.
“Unfortunately we have not made any improvement in the situation, our troops remain at an undisclosed location, the rebels are not telling us where they are,” Tikoitoga said.
“But they continue to reassure us that they’re being well looked after, they’re being fed well and are being kept safe. They’ve also told us that they’ve been taken out of battle [combat] areas,” he added.
The Fijians, part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), were captured on Wednesday last week when the rebels stormed a Golan Heights crossing. Tikoitoga has repeatedly stressed the Fijians are in the Golan Heights as neutral peacekeepers and do not take sides in any conflict.
Another group of 75 Philippine peacekeepers refused to surrender and eventually escaped from two camps on the Syrian side of the border after the rebels besieged them.
Israel seized 1,200km2 of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, then annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
The UN peacekeeping force has been stationed there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. There are currently 1,200 peacekeepers from Fiji, Philippines, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands in the area.
Peacekeepers were detained twice last year before being released safely.
The Philippines said before the latest incident that it will repatriate its 331-strong contingent for security reasons.
Australia, Croatia and Japan have previously withdrawn their troops.
Israel has been monitoring the situation across its border closely as the Syrian army and rebels fight for control of the area around the crossing.