Al-Qaeda-linked fighters holding 45 Fijian peacekeepers hostage in Syria have issued a set of demands for their release, including the group's removal from a UN terrorist list and compensation for the killing of three of its fighters in a shootout with international troops, according to a Fijian official.
The Nusra Front seized the Fijians last week in the Golan Heights, where a 1,200-strong UN force monitors the buffer zone between Syria and Israel. The rebels also surrounded two Filipino units, but those UN troops escaped over the weekend.
Speaking in the Fijian capital of Suva, military commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga said on Tuesday the Nusra Front had made three demands for the peacekeepers' release: to be taken off the UN terrorist list; the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of the Syrian capital of Damascus; and payment for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shootout with UN officers.
Tikoitoga did not say whether the rebels' demands would be seriously considered. He said the UN had sent hostage negotiators to Syria to take over discussions from military leaders.
"Negotiations have moved up to another level with the professional negotiators now in place," he said.
'No talks with terrorists'
Tikoitoga also released the names of the 45 detained soldiers, who he said were led by Captain Savenaca Siwatibau Rabuka. He asked Fiji's community and church leaders to help look after the families of the captive troops and asked the public to also offer support.
"I appeal to all Fijians that while we pray for our soldiers in Syria that we be sensitive to the families," he said, adding "the UN has assured us they will use all of their available resources for the safe return of our soldiers".
Syrian rebels, including Nusra Front fighters, seized a crossing from Syria into Israel on Wednesday. The area has been engulfed in heavy fighting between the opposition fighters and President Bashar al-Assad's forces since then.
The Nusra Front, in a statement posted online on Sunday, accused the UN of doing nothing to help the Syrian people since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. It said it seized the Fijians in retaliation for the UN's ignoring "the daily shedding of the Muslims' blood in Syria."