The UN says it has been told by al-Qaeda linked rebels that they seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights “for their own protection” and that they were all safe.
The Fijians, who are part of the UN’s disengagement observer force, were seized on Thursday by rebels the US said were lead by members of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s primary affiliate in Syria.
On Friday, the UN said it had “received assurances from credible sources that the 44 peacekeepers … are safe and in good health”, adding that the disengagement mission was informed “that the intention … was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection”.
The UN added that 72 soldiers from the Philippines had been surrounded by rebels but had not been harmed and were in good health.
Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN operation, said talks were continuing with a “wide range of parties within Syria” and UN member state who may influence them.
“Those who are being held have food and water for some time,” he said. “At this very point, it is not an extreme concern.”
The capture and standoff come after Syrian rebels, including Nusra Front fighters, stormed the Quneitra crossing on
Wednesday, sparking an exchange of fire with Israeli troops.
The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war.
Syria and Israel technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an “area of separation” under a 1973 ceasefire formalised in 1974.
The UN force monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70km from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.
It comprises 1,223 soldiers from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.
Austria, Japan and Croatia have all pulled their troops out of the monitoring force due to the deteriorating security situation and spillover from the Syrian war.
UN officials noted that troops monitoring the area have been abducted twice in the last year, but released safely.