Al Qaida-linked Syrian rebels holding 45 Fijian peacekeepers hostage have issued a set of demands for their release, an official said today.
The Nusra Front seized the Fijians last Thursday in the Golan Heights, where a 1,200-strong UN force monitors the buffer zone between Syria and Israel. The rebels also surrounded two Filipino units, but those UN troops escaped over the weekend.
Speaking in the Fijian capital of Suva, military commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga said the Nusra Front has made three demands for the peacekeepers' release: to be taken off the UN terrorist list, the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of the Syrian capital of Damascus, and compensation for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shoot-out with UN officers.
Brig Gen Tikoitoga did not say whether the rebels' demands would be seriously considered. He said the UN had sent hostage negotiators to Syria to take over discussions from military leaders.
"Negotiations have moved up to another level with the professional negotiators now in place," he said.
He also released the names of the 45 detained soldiers, who he said are led by Captain Savenaca Siwatibau Rabuka. He asked Fiji's community and church leaders to help look after the families of the captive troops and asked the public to also offer support.
"I appeal to all Fijians that while we pray for our soldiers in Syria that we be sensitive to the families," he said, adding "the UN has assured us they will use all of their available resources for the safe return of our soldiers".
Syrian rebels, including Nusra Front militants, seized a border crossing with Israel on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights last Wednesday. The area has been engulfed in heavy fighting between the opposition fighters and President Bashar Assad's forces since then.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Simon Coveney said Ireland may not replace its 130-person rapid response force in the Golan Heights, where 44 peacekeepers from Fiji are being held by militants, until the United Nations reviews its mandate for its forces there.
"I have made it very clear, that if the UN wants Ireland to continue to support this mission...then we need a full review and we have to get assurances about how the mission will change to adapt to the new realities," Coveney told RTE.
Until the issue is addressed, Ireland is "not going to send any more troops to that mission," he said.
He played down the possibility of pulling the troops out without adequate replacements. "Ireland is still committed to this mission, I want to stress that," he said.