Syrian rebels surround UN peacekeepers near Israel border

Photo: Syrian rebels surround UN peacekeepers near Israel border / Arab World

Baku, Azerbaijan, Aug.28

Syrian rebels surrounded dozens of defiant Filipino peacekeepers on the Golan Heights Aug. 28 demanding they give up their weapons, hours after taking 43 Fijian soldiers hostage, the Guardian reported referring to United Nations authorities.

Seventy-five Filipino members of a United Nations' peacekeeping force were defending two posts on the Syrian side of Golan Heights, and were prepared to fight back rather than surrender, their commander in Manila said.

"We can use deadly force in defense of the UN facilities," Colonel Roberto Ancan told reporters. "I (would) just like to emphasize our troops are well-armed, they are well-trained ... they are well-disciplined warrior peacekeepers", he added.

Syrian rebels, including fighters from the al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front, stormed a Golan Heights crossing at Quneitra on Wednesday, sparking an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops.

The rebels captured 43 Fijian members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on Thursday, forcing them to surrender their weapons then taking them hostage.

Ancan said the rebels then used an English-speaking Fijian hostage to relay their demand to the Filipino peacekeepers to give up their weapons.

The Fijian Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, said Aug. 28 that talks were underway to release the hostages, and they were believed to be safe.

"I want to assure the families of the soldiers we are doing everything possible to secure their safe return," he said. "The latest information we have is that they are safe and I can say now that the negotiations for their release have already begun," he added.

The UN Security Council strongly condemned the assaults against the peacekeepers and demanded the "unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers" and urged countries with influence to help win their release.

The UN initially said 81 Filipinos were involved in the stand-off, however Filipino commander Ancan said there were 75.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said it was unclear which group had staged the attacks.

"Some groups are self-identified as affiliated to al-Nusra but we are not able to confirm," he said. However, the U.S. State Department said al-Nusra was definitely involved.

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