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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.

AFP Photo

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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