BEIRUT / UNITED NATIONS: The plight of dozens of U.N. peacekeepers in Syria remained “very, very fluid” Friday, the secretary-general’s spokesman said, as talks aimed at their release stretched into a second day.
Seventy-five besieged Filipino members of the UNDOF peacekeeping force were prepared to use “deadly force” to defend themselves, their commander in Manila said.
The standoff came as Syrian government forces pounded the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar with 17 airstrikes and were advancing in the area against Nusra Front jihadists and their Islamist militia allies, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime monitoring group.
U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York that some radio contact has been made with the peacekeepers from the Philippines who have been restricted to their positions.
He said talks continue “with a wide range of parties within Syria” and U.N. member states who may have influence with them. Details remained sketchy, he added.
Dujarric said it was unclear which group had staged the attacks.
“Some groups are self-identified as affiliated to [the] Nusra [Front] but we are not able to confirm,” he said, referring to Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
But the U.S. State Department said Nusra was definitely involved, in a statement that emphasized the group was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. The statement demanded the “unconditional and immediate release” of the Fijians.
“Those who are being held have food and water for some time,” Dujarric said. “At this very point, it is not an extreme concern.”
In Manila, Col. Roberto Ancan, the commander of his country’s peacekeeping troops, told reporters that “We can use deadly force in defense of the U.N. facilities.”
“I [would] just like to emphasize our troops are well-armed, they are well-trained ... they are well-disciplined warrior peacekeepers,” Ancan said.
Another 44 peacekeepers from Fiji remain detained by insurgents.
The rebels captured the Fijian members of UNDOF on the Syrian side Thursday, forcing them to surrender their weapons and taking them hostage.
Ancan said the rebels then used an English-speaking Fijian hostage to relay their demand to the Filipino peacekeepers to give up their weapons, but they refused.
The U.N. initially said 81 Filipinos were involved in the standoff, but Ancan said there were 75.
A militant close to Nusra said the Fijians had been taken because they had been providing medical treatment to wounded soldiers from President Bashar Assad’s army.
According to the Observatory, Nusra was holding the peacekeepers because they had given shelter to regime soldiers, and they had discovered the corpses of two insurgents at the U.N. facility.
In Damascus, pro-opposition media outlets said the stepped-up government offensive in Jobar came after insurgents on Thursday detonated a network of tunnels, killing a large number of government soldiers.
And after a relative lull, mortar bombs peppered the capital, and wounded three students at the University of Damascus dormitory complex in the neighborhood of Mezzeh, the Observatory said. Mortar bombs also struck the central neighborhoods of Malki and Rawda, it added.
Government forces also continued their stepped-up airstrikes against the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS in the north and east of the country.
The Observatory said that several explosions were heard at ISIS training camp in Raqqa province, but there were no details on casualties. In the region of Mansoura in Raqqa, an airstrike against a presumed ISIS location killed three youngsters, all under the age of 10, from the same family, the Observatory added.
Airstrikes targeted ISIS-held areas in the provincial capital of Raqqa and the city of Deir al-Zor, wounding a number of people, according to the Observatory.
In northern Aleppo province, the Kurdish YPG militia inflicted casualties on ISIS militants who have been trying to re-establish a presence in the area, the Observatory said. In a sign of the uptick in violence, it put Thursday’s nationwide death toll at 269 people, of whom were 163 regime troops and paramilitaries, and 76 were Islamist insurgents and jihadists from Nusra and ISIS.