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44 Fijian soldiers held captive by rebels in Syria

– Forty-four Fijian soldiers working as U.N. peacekeepers remained captive to a militant group in Syria Friday while 75 Philippine soldiers were in tense standoff with the rebels, according to the two Pacific nations.

Both nations remained hopeful the impasse could be resolved without bloodshed.

Fijian Commander Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said he’s been informed his soldiers are alive and unharmed, although hasn’t been able to contact them directly. Philippines President Benigno Aquino III said that while the situation remained tense, there was no reason to believe his troops faced immediate danger.

The events began Thursday morning on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an area divided between Israel and Syria.

Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels converged on the Fijian camp at about 7:30 a.m.

He said the rebels demanded the Fijian soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. The Fijians were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location. He said he’s been told they were later transported back to their original post.

“We are all doing our best to ensure the safety of (those) that are currently being held captive,” Tikoitoga said.

Aquino III, who was travelling south of Manila, told a crowd that the situation involving the Filipino peacekeepers was “stable.”

Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said the rebels surrounded two encampments about 2.5 miles apart occupied by Filipino peacekeepers and demanded that they give up their firearms, but the peacekeepers refused. “This resulted in a standoff,” he said, reading from a statement.

However, “the potential for de-escalation is still positive,” he said. The military leadership in the Philippines was in direct communication with the peacekeepers, he added.

“Our soldiers are prepared, trained and capable of dealing with this situation and will take risks to fulfill our commitment to international security and peace. The peacekeeping contingent has the right to defend its position and the units in line with United Nations protocols and rules of engagement,” he said.

Tutaan said an English-speaking Fijian peacekeeper was sent by the rebels to tell the Filipinos to give up their weapons.

Col. Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philippine military’s Peacekeeping Operations Center, said the soldiers were armed with assault rifles, light machineguns and pistols and had enough ammunition to defend themselves.

“We have our rules of engagement wherein we can use deadly force in defense of United Nations facilities,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fiji’s commander asked people from his nation to pray for their soldiers. Fiji has one of the world’s smaller militaries, comprising just 3,500 troops, of which 434 had been sent to assist with peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.

The United Nations said initially that 43 Fijian soldiers had been detained and 81 Philippine peacekeepers had been effectively trapped after being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.

Fiji later clarified that 44 of its soldiers had been captured, while the Philippines military said 75 of its troops were trapped.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday condemned the detention of the Fijians.

“I call for their immediate and unconditional release as well as action for the scores of peacekeepers from the Philippines who are also affected,” he said in Bali, Indonesia.

He said the U.N. will do everything possible to secure the release of the soldiers.

Fiji said it would not be pressured into withdrawing from its peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.

“We will not shy away from that responsibility under these circumstances,” Tikoitoga said. “We will continue to work very hard for the release of our men and at the same time we will put all our men on alert to ensure that no further incidents of this sort happen to them.”

The developments have come during a period of increased fighting between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, the office of Ban said in a statement.

The statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have been fighting the Syrian military near the Golan Heights.

––

AP writer Oliver Teves in Manila contributed to this report. Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.

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