UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - UN officials have received assurances that 44 peacekeepers detained by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights are safe and in good health, a UN spokesman said on Friday.
Syrian armed fighters, including some linked to the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, stormed a Golan Heights crossing on Wednesday, taking 44 troops from Fiji who were forced to surrender their weapons. The rebels surrounded another group of 72 soldiers from the Philippines serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that is tasked with monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.
The United Nations did not say whether the 44 Fijian soldiers had been released, but a statement suggested progress was being made in negotiations to secure their freedom.
"The United Nations has received assurances from credible sources that 44 peacekeepers from UNDOF who were taken from their position... are safe and in good health," said a statement from the spokesman. "UNDOF has not yet had direct contact with the peacekeepers."
It added that UNDOF officials had been "informed that the intention of those holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection."
UNDOF has been in "regular contact" with 72 Filipino peacekeepers who were surrounded by the rebels on Thursday and who had refused to disarm. They too "have not been harmed and are in good health," he added.
The UN revised an earlier figure from 43 to 44 Fijians and from 75 to 72 Filipinos after checking leave records with the mission.
UN officials have been negotiating to secure the release of the blue helmets with the armed groups and countries that may have influence over them. The UN Security Council has demanded the "unconditional and immediate release" of the peacekeepers and urged countries with influence to help win their release.
There are currently 1,200 peacekeepers serving in UNDOF from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.