The Syrian branch of the global militant Islamist group al-Qaeda said it was responsible for the attack on 72 Filipino peacekeepers in two different locations in the Golan Heights over the weekend allegedly in retaliation for the failure of the United Nations to help the people of Syria.
The group, the Nusra Front, also acknowledged that it was holding 45 Fijian peacekeepers in southern Syria. It accused the peacekeeping force — which has monitored the demarcation line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since 1974 – of protecting Israeli-controlled territory while doing nothing to stop the killing on the Syrian side.
A commander of the Islamist Nusra Front told Reuters the Fijian peacekeepers had been detained because UNDOF was aiding the government of President Bashar al-Assad and had ignored the suffering of the Syrian people.
The Nusra Front has been battling the Syrian army in the area and have wrested control of the border crossing at Quneitra, which is operated by the United Nations.
Nusra supporters on Twitter said on Sunday the group is demanding the release of Abu Mussab al-Suri, a top al Qaeda leader, in exchange for the detained peacekeepers. Al-Suri, a Syrian national from Aleppo, was captured in Pakistan in 2005 and handed over to Syria, where he is still believed to be detained.
72 PINOYS SAFE
In a statement released Sunday, the UN said soldiers from Fiji, 44 based on their count, remained detained by armed elements.
Fijian Army Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga told a media conference in Fiji that they “are continuing negotiations at all levels.”
He said they had been assured that the men were being treated well and had come to no harm.
“However, we are still very concerned that we cannot confirm at this stage their exact location, whether they are still in Syria or whether they have been moved to neighboring countries,” Tikoitoga said.
The Fijian and Philippine troops are serving with UNDOF in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.
The UN assured that all 72 Filipino peacekeepers are now safe.
One group of 32 Philippine soldiers managed to flee after receiving backup from the missions’ reaction force, the UN said.
The other group of 40 Filipino peackeepers escaped from their post as fighting ceased at nightfall while the Syrian rebels were asleep and reached a safe location an hour later.
Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez and Muntinlupa City Rep. Rodolfo “Pong” Biazon said the Filipino troops deserve recognition from Congress for managing to escape safely from Syrian rebels after seven hours of fighting.
“Our peacekeeping troops deserve commendation for the bravery, courage and professionalism they displayed during the attack despite being outnumbered by the heavily armed Syrian rebels. Their refusal to surrender in carrying their mandate is very laudable,” Romualdez, who heads the House independent bloc, said.
“They demonstrated the military’s core values of courage and commitment of the country for showing highest levels of professionalism and competence. Surely, they would be admired by their peers worldwide,” he added.
Biazon, chairman of the House Committee on National Defense and a former AFP Chief of Staff also lauded the Filipino peacekeepers. (With a report from Charissa M. Luci)