Syria Islamists Say Filipino UN Troops Were Freed, but Fijians Still Held

Nusra Front says it released 35 Filipino peacekeepers, contradicting reports that the men had escaped under cover of darkness; group says will free Fijians in return for humanitarian aid.

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United Nations observers on the Golan Heights on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014.
United Nations observers on the Golan Heights on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014.Credit: AFP

The radical Islamist group Nusra Front said on Sunday night that it had released some 35 United Nations peacekeepers who it had besieged in their outpost on the Golan Heights.

The peacekeepers reached a UN base on the Israeli side of the border overnight.

The Nusra statement contradicted numerous other reports that the peacekeepers, all from the Philippines, had managed to escape the post under the cover of darkness.

Another 44 peacekeepers from Fiji are still being held captive. The Nusra Front said they would only be released in return for the provision of humanitarian aid to a Syrian suburb under siege by the Syrian regime.

The organization said that the UN had disappointed Sunni Muslims by passing resolutions favoring the regime of Bashar Assad and facilitating attacks on rebel groups under the umbrella of the war against terror.

Syrian opposition groups say that the rebel forces in the Golan area will be supplemented over the next few days by fresh troops. The Syrian Army is also expected to be reinforced in the area, possibly by a Hezbollah contingent according to unconfirmed reports from Lebanon.

The escape or release of the Filipino troops, following the release of another Filipino contingent a day earlier, marked a major step forward in a crisis that erupted on Thursday when Syrian rebels began targeting the peacekeeping forces.

The UN Security Council has condemned the assaults on the international troops monitoring the Syrian-Israeli frontier and has demanded the unconditional release of those still in captivity.

The crisis began after Syrian rebels overran the Quneitra crossing between the Israeli and Syrian areas of the Golan Heights on Wednesday. A day later, insurgents from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front seized the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded their Filipino colleagues, demanding they surrender.

The Filipinos, occupying two UN encampments, refused and fought the rebels Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of a UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles.

The remaining 40 peacekeepers were besieged at the second encampment, called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen, who rammed the camp's gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds. The Filipinos returned fire in self-defense, Philippine military officials said.

At one point, Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed, said Col. Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official who helped monitor the tense standoff from the Philippine capital, Manila, and mobilize support for the besieged troops.

"Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours," Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said, adding that there were no Filipino casualties. "We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire."

As night fell and a cease-fire took hold, the 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons, traveling across rough terrain for nearly two hours before meeting up with other UN forces, who escorted them to safety early Sunday, Philippine officials said.
"We may call it the greatest escape," Catapang told reporters in Manila.

The Syrian and Israeli governments, along with the United States and Qatar, provided support, the Philippine military said without elaborating.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with the Prime Minister of Fiji by telephone Sunday, and promised that the United Nations was "doing its utmost to obtain the unconditional and immediate release" of the Fijian peacekeepers, Ban's office said.

The Nusra Front confirmed that it had seized the Fijians. In a statement posted online, the group published a photo showing what it said were the captured Fijians in their military uniforms along with 45 identification cards. The group said the men "are in a safe place and in good health, and everything they need in terms of food and medicine is given to them."

It was unclear why the number of detained peacekeepers differed from the 44 figure provided by the UN.

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