UN presses for help to release 45 Fijian peacekeepers

Armored UN vehicles wait to cross from the Israeli controlled Golan Heights to Syria. Photo / AP
Armored UN vehicles wait to cross from the Israeli controlled Golan Heights to Syria. Photo / AP

The UN Security Council called on "countries with influence" to press al-Qaida-linked insurgents to release 45 UN peacekeepers from Fiji abducted last week in the Golan Heights.

A press statement approved by all 15 council members after a briefing by UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous again demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the Fijian peacekeepers.

Heavy clashes have raged in the Golan Heights since Syrian rebels captured a border crossing between Syria and Israel near the abandoned town of Quneitra last Wednesday. Fighters from al-Qaida's Syria branch, the Nusra Front, abducted the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded two Filipino contingents serving in the UN force known as UNDOF the following day.

The Security Council welcomed the news that all the Filipinos were safe and commended the UN peacekeeping mission's quick reaction force for its assistance.

Ladsous told reporters the peacekeepers have shown "steadfastness and courage" and said the UN is working to obtain the immediate, safe and unconditional release of the Fijians.

"We are sparing no effort to obtain the release of the detained peacekeepers," he said, but gave no details stressing the importance of "discretion."

UN diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said the Nusra Front has made a series of demands, including being taken off the UN blacklist of terrorist organisations subject to sanctions.

The Nusra Front accused the UN of doing nothing to help the Syrian people since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. It said the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the U.N.'s ignoring "the daily shedding of the Muslims' blood in Syria" and even colluding with Assad's army "to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims" through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights.

UNDOF was established in May 1974 following intensified firing on the Israel-Syria border after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria has campaigned for decades for return of the land. For nearly four decades, the UN monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria but the Golan Heights has increasingly become a battlefield in the more than three-year-old Syrian conflict.

The council demanded that all groups abandon areas controlled by UNDOF and the Queneitra crossing, and return all vehicles, weapons and equipment belonging to the peacekeepers.

Ladsous said UNDOF has been strengthened with armored equipment and other military hardware.

The council commended the peacekeepers for their bravery in facing the threats and challenges in the volatile area and reiterated its "unconditional support for UNDOF and the vital role it plays in support of the stability in the Golan Heights."

-AP

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