Golan Heights: UN calls for release of Fijian peacekeepers

Armed men, reportedly rebel fighters, standing on the Syrian side of the Golan, at the Quneitra border crossing, on 29 August 2014. It is not yet clear which Syrian armed group is behind the peacekeepers' detainment

The UN says it deplores the capture of 43 Fijian peacekeepers in the Syrian Golan Heights by an armed group, calling for their "immediate release".

Fiji's interim leader Frank Bainimarama says talks are under way to negotiate the release of the hostages.

The UN peacekeepers were detained near Quneitra, during heavy fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces.

Meanwhile, the Philippines says 75 of its peacekeepers remain in a tense standoff with rebels in the same area.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) base is surrounded by militants but the Philippine peacekeepers have refused to surrender, army spokesman Gen Domingo Tutaan Junior confirmed on Friday.

It is not yet clear which armed group is holding the peacekeepers.

Activists say the gunmen include members of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's offshoot in Syria.

'Unharmed'

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned on Thursday "the restriction of movement of Undof peacekeepers by armed elements of the opposition in two positions in the vicinity of al-Ruwayhina and Burayqa".

Philippine army spokesman General Domingo Tutaan Junior confirmed that 43 Fijians had been taken hostage by Syrian rebels

The UN Security Council also "demanded the unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers," in a statement.

Fijian Commander Brig Gen Mosese Tikoitoga said the 43 peacekeepers currently being detained were believed to be alive and unharmed.

"I want to assure the families of the soldiers we are doing everything possible to secure their safe return," Mr Bainimarama said on Friday, adding that talks had begun to secure their release.

Three vehicles with some 150 armed rebels approached the Fijian camp early on Thursday and took the peacekeepers briefly to an undisclosed location before transporting them back to their original post, Brig Gen Tikoitoga said.

'Warrior peacekeepers'

The Philippines military said the rebels had encircled its camp with the Fijians in tow, and demanded the Filipino peacekeepers surrender their weapons, which they refused to do.

Members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) cross with their armoured vehicles from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights into the Syrian-controlled territory on 28 August 2014. UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights have been detained several times during the three-year Syria conflict

"We can use deadly force in defence of the UN facilities," Philippines commander Col Roberto Ancan told reporters on Friday.

He described them "well-armed, well-trained" and said they were "warrior peacekeepers".

The two UN encampments are about 4 km (2.5 miles) apart.

The development comes two days after Syrian rebels seized a crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan after a long battle.

Undof positions were hit by mortars during the fighting, but no casualties there were reported.

This is not the first time Undof personnel have been detained by rebel fighters in recent years. Peacekeepers were detained in March and May last year and were released safely.

Map of Golan Heights

The Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria, has a political and strategic significance that belies its size.

Israel seized the region in the closing stages of the 1967 Six-Day War, and thwarted a Syrian attempt to retake it in 1973.

Both countries signed an armistice in 1974, after which Undof was put in place to monitor the demilitarised zone.

It has 1,224 lightly armed military personnel from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines.

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