By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Washington Bureau
JERUSALEM — The al-Qaida-linked rebels who captured dozens of Fijian United Nations peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights last week have set demands for their release, including removal of the Islamist group from a U.N. terrorist list and compensation for the deaths of its comrades in fighting with members of the international force, the commander of the Fijian army said Tuesday.
Militants from the Nusra Front seized the 45 Fijian peacekeepers last Thursday in a buffer zone where more than 1,200 U.N. observers are stationed between Israeli and Syrian lines.
Fighters from the Islamist group also surrounded and attacked two positions of Filipino peacekeepers, some of whom were extricated by U.N. forces while others escaped.
Fighting in the buffer zone has intensified between Syrian forces and anti-government rebels, including members of the Nusra Front. Last week the rebels seized the Quneitra crossing to the Israeli-held sector of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau mostly captured by the Israelis in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Speaking in the Fijian capital of Suva, the army commander, Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga, said the Nusra Front had made three demands for the release of the peacekeepers: removal from the U.N. list of terrorist groups, delivery of humanitarian aid to Ruta, a suburb of Damascus that’s a stronghold of the group, and payment for the killings of three of its combatants in exchanges of fire with U.N. peacekeepers.
The Nusra Front also accused the U.N. of failing to help Syrians under attack by government forces during the country’s civil war, and it alleged that the peacekeeping force was assisting the Syrian army in its movements through the buffer zone.
“Negotiations have moved up to another level with the professional negotiators now in place,” Tikoitoga said, referring to hostage negotiators the U.N. sent to Syria. “The rebels are not telling us where the troops are, but they continue to reassure us they are being well looked after. They also told us they are ensuring that they are taken out of battle areas.”
“We’ve been assured by U.N. headquarters that the U.N. will bring all its resources to bear to ensure the safe return of our soldiers,” the general said.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.
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