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Middle East

Fiji: Talks underway to free Golan peacekeepers

Militants are seen on the Syrian side near the Qunaitra border crossing between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syria August 28, 2014. (REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

SUVA, Fiji: Talks were underway Friday to release 43 Fijian peacekeepers taken hostage by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, the Pacific nation's Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said.

Bainimarama said the peacekeepers were believed to be safe and his government was working closely with the United Nations to secure their release.

"The latest information we have is that they are safe and I can say now that the negotiations for their release have already begun," he said in a statement.

"I want to assure the families of the soldiers we are doing everything possible to secure their safe return."

Bainimarama said Fiji was "united as a nation in praying for their safe return."

"These men are peacekeepers, not combatants in the Syrian conflict, and there is no need for them to be detained," he said.

The Fijians, who were on duty in a U.N.-patrolled zone, were taken hostage by about 150 Syrian rebels Thursday.

About 75 Philippine peacekeepers who refused to surrender were involved in a tense standoff with armed groups in the same area, Philippine officials said.

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, then annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.

The U.N. peacekeeping force has been stationed there since 1974 to monitor a cease-fire between Israel and Syria. There are currently 1,200 peacekeepers from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.

 

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