Talks Ongoing to Free 43 UN Peacekeepers in Golan Heights
Negotiations are reportedly underway on Friday to try and gain the release of 43 UN peacekeepers from Fiji, who were captured on Wednesday by Syrian rebel forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama released a statement saying "the latest information we have is that they are safe and I can say now that the negotiations for their release have already begun."
"I want to assure the families of the soldiers we are doing everything possible to secure their safe return," said Bainimarama, adding that Fiji is "united as a nation in praying for their safe return. These men are peacekeepers, not combatants in the Syrian conflict, and there is no need for them to be detained."
In regards to the Syrian conflict, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird on Friday accused Syrian President Bashar Assad as being responsible for the deteriorating security situation that led to the capture of the forces and a stand-off by rebels with other UN forces.
"We are appalled at the brazen attack on this important operation, and we call on all parties to respect the impartiality of UN peacekeepers and their freedom of movement, safety and security," stated Baird.
Honing in on the responsible party, Baird added "the Assad regime is solely to blame for the spiraling violence and the diminished security situation. It continues to wage a war on its own people while terrorist groups operate freely within its borders."
The Canadian foreign minister concluded by calling on Assad and the rebel forces to "bring a swift end to this war," which now in its fourth year has led to roughly 200,000 deaths according to a recent UN report.
75, not 81, Filipino troops engaged in "tense" stand-off
The 43 captive peacekeepers from Fiji were forced to disarm and taken hostage by Syrian rebels, who the US said belonged to the Syrian Al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front.
In the same action during which the rebel forces also captured the Quneitra crossing to Israel from the Syrian side, UN peacekeepers from the Philippines were surrounded by the rebels and remain in a stand-off position.
Earlier reports said 81 Filipino troops were surrounded, but that estimate was corrected on Friday to 75 soldiers by Filipino Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philippines' peacekeeping operations division.
Ancan told AFP that his troops were defending two fortified posts in the UN-patrolled zone, one manned by 40 Filipino soldiers and the other by 35.
No shots have been fired during the stand-off according to Ancan, who spoke in Manila, but he added "we can use deadly force in defense of the UN facilities. I (would) just like to emphasize our troops are well-armed, they are well-trained...they are well-disciplined warrior peacekeepers."
The rebel forces reportedly used an English-speaking Fiji hostage to demand the Filipino peacekeepers give up, a demand which they refused in their posts located roughly 2.5 miles apart from each other.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino described the situation in the Golan Heights as "tense," although he added "so far, we should not worry. The news is that the situation looks stable."