The Al-Qaeda affiliated group which seized 45 Fijian United Nations (UN) peacekeepers five days ago has issued conditions for their release. The incident has thrown into doubt the future of the UN mission on the Israel-Syria border.
Last week Syrian opposition forces captured the Quneitra border crossing with Israel and fierce fighting has subsequently ensued with Syrian government troops. The rebel forces included units from the Al-Nusra Front, giving the Al-Qaeda affiliated organisation a presence on Israel’s border. During the fighting, two Israelis were injured in what appeared to be errant fire, a not uncommon recent occurrence.
Towards the end of last week, Al-Nusra forces underscored their presence, forcibly seizing 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers. Another 70 or so Filipino peacekeepers were also trapped in the area by Al-Nusra fighters, but eventually dramatically escaped and are thought to have made their way over the Israeli border with support from the IDF.
Overnight, Fiji’s military commander Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said UN hostage negotiators are in Syria after the Al-Nusra Front issued three demands for the release of the Fijians. Tikoitoga said they are demanding to be removed from a UN terror list, want aid delivered to parts of Damascus and compensation for three fighters killed in a clash with UN soldiers.
The kidnapping and heavy fighting in the area has brought the very future of the UN mission into question. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been in place since 1974, tasked with preserving the ceasefire arrangement agreed between Israel and Syria at the end of the Yom Kippur War. However, Irish Defence Minister Simon Coveney told RTE Radio he was reconsidering Ireland’s contribution to the force, saying “The risk levels, given what’s happened over the last three days, are not acceptable.” AP says Irish withdrawal “could be a final blow to the UN mission.” Austria and Croatia pulled their forces last year, while the Philippines says its troops will return home in October.