On 24 August, al Nusra Front, a Syrian-based militant group, stormed the Quneitra crossing on the border between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights. A day later, the insurgents kidnapped 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers. The hostages are currently being held at an undisclosed location the Golan Heights.
Al Nusra has posted a statement online, claiming that the peacekeepers “are in a safe place and in good health, and everything they need in terms of food and medicine is given to them.” The statement was accompanied by a photo, believed to be the captured Fijians in their military uniforms, along with 45 identification cards. The soldiers were part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), and were stationed in a buffer zone to monitor a 1974 ceasefire agreement between Syria and Israel.
On 2 September, the Fiji government has released he list of demands that have been made for the safe return of the peacekeeper hostages. Fijian Army Chief Mosese Tikoitoga states that the rebels have made four demands:
- The militants want al Nusra front removed from the United Nations list of terrorist organisations
- They seek humanitarian aid for a town outside of Damascus, which is an al Nusra stronghold.
- They demand compensation for three fighters who were recently injured
Unconfirmed reports add that the insurgents have also demanded the release of an al-Qaeda leader, Abu Mussab al-Suri (a.k.a. Mustafa Setmariam Nasar). Al-Suri is an al-Qaeda leader who is currently being held in Syria. He was initially arrested in Pakistan in 2005.
The UN Security Council has condemned the kidnapping and called for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages. A United Nations negotiations team has landed in the Golan Heights to negotiate with the militants for the return of the hostages, whose location is unknown. Apart from the online statement, the al Nusra kidnappers have provided assurances of the hostages’ safety to the Fiji government, adding that the victims had been taken away from combat areas.
Several nations, including Austria, Japan, and Croatia, have withdrawn peacekeeping forces in light of deteriorating security as the Syrian war rages on, amplified by militant groups combating one another for regional primacy. Tikoitoga believes that rather than pulling out forces, the there should be an increase in forces in Syria, adding, “We will not make any recommendations of pulling out from the UN or any other engagement, because our contribution to UN peacekeeping – if we don’t want to do this, then who else in the world would want to do this?”
Filipino Peacekeepers Escape to Safety
In the Philippines, the government has also decided they will not renew peacekeeping operations in the region following the attack on 75 Filipino peacekeepers over the weekend. On Thursday, the Al Nusra rebels seized the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded two UN encampments with Filipino troops, demanding they lay down their weapons and surrender. The forces refused, and by Saturday both encampments were engaged in fighting with the rebels. At the Breiqa encampment, over 35 peacekeepers were escorted to safety by Irish and Filipino forces with armoured vehicles.
The remaining 40 Filipino peacekeepers at the Rwihana encampment were surrounded by over 100 militant gunmen attempted to enter the base, where approximately 40 Filipino peacekeepers had been stationed. The gunmen attempted to force entry into the camp by ramming the gates with trucks and firing mortar rounds. The Filipino contingency returned fire in self-defence. Fighting lasted for approximately seven hours, interspersed with Syrian government forces firing upon the militants from a distance, in an effort to distract the militants. Shortly after midnight on Sunday, a ceasefire took hold. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) states that the remaining 40 peacekeepers fled the encampment in the cover of night and “arrived in a safe location one hour later.” There were no Filipino casualties in the fighting. The evacuation has been dubbed “The Great Escape”.
According to the UN peacekeeping mandate, UN peacekeepers must only use force as a last resort. If peacekeepers are acting in self-defence, they ‘may use force at the tactical level, with the authorization of the Security Council.”
The Philippine military, seeks the investigation of a U.N. peacekeeping commander in the Golan Heights who asked Filipino troops to surrender to the al Nusra rebels. Filipino General Gregorio Pio Catapang defied the commander’s orders, telling the 40 Filipino peacekeepers not to lay down their arms.
The UN commander of the UNDOF, whose name has not been released, was overseeing talks with the militants who had captured the Fijian peacekeepers. Catapang refused to agree to any resolution that would put Filipino troops in grave danger. He added, “I told them not to follow the order because that is a violation of our regulation, that we do not surrender our firearms, and, at the same time, there is no assurance that you will be safe after you give your firearms […] Our stand is, we will not allow our soldiers to become sacrificial pawns in order to save the Fijians. They should look for other ways and means to save the Fijians.”
Catapang seeks an investigation in order for the UNDOF commander to explain his request for surrender, while simultaneously allowing the Philippine military to explain why the peacekeepers were told to defy orders. The Philippines have announced that they will not deploy a new contingent when their stint expires in October. Their decision to withdraw has further weakened UN peacekeeping operations in a region where rising militant attacks have caused several nations to remove troops.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Sahel-based terrorist group Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood), has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Belmokhtar was believed to have been killed in fighting in Mali in 2013. However in late April, intelligence sources revealed that he had moved from Mali to a base in southern Libya.
Belmokhtar’s statement, released on Islamist websites, said, “We declare our faith in the policies of our emir, Cheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri… because we are convinced of the fairness of his approach,” Mokhtar Belmokhtar said in a statement posted Wednesday on Islamist websites.
Belmokhtar was key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with AQIM leader Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed his own organization. In 2013, Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, out of Gao in Mali and to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade.
In the statement, Belmokhtar specifically mentions al-Zawahiri’s latest comments on in-fighting between rebels in Syria that has killed hundreds since January.
In related news, Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has also issued a statement saying it will comply with Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders with respect to the jihadist infighting in Syria. Al Nusrah has been in combat with Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS, also known as ISIL), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command.
In recently released audio messages, Zawahiri addressed Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, and demanded that Julani and Al Nusrah “immediately stop any fighting” as it is an act of aggression against “their jihadist brothers.” Zawahiri reiterated his call for the establishment of an independent sharia (Islamic law) court capable of settle the ongoing dispute. He also said the jihadists should stop criticizing each other in the media.
In reply to the message, Al Nusrah announced its “commitment” to comply with Zawahiri’s orders to stop attacking Isis, but added that they are prepared to respond defensively to any act of aggression. The group also says it is willing to submit to a sharia court, and will stop insulting its rivals on social media.
Al Nusrah blames ISIS for the death of Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed in February. Al Suri was a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, which is allied with Al Nusrah and is a prominent part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups. Al Nusrah also blames ISIS for the death of Abu Muhammad al Fateh, a leader in the group who was killed along with other members of his family in Syria’s Idlib province.
The pledged to Zawahiri show a renewed unity among various branches of Al Qaeda, and a willingness to work more closely AQ main office. This may signal strengthening ties, and unity of messages and actions coming from AQ affiliates throughout the Middle East.