SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Fiji's military commander said Tuesday that Syrian rebels have issued three demands for the release of 45 Fijian peacekeepers they've held captive for five days.
Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front wants to be taken off the U.N. terrorist list, wants humanitarian aid delivered to parts of the Syrian capital Damascus, and wants compensation for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shootout with U.N. officers.
Tikoitoga didn't say if the demands would be seriously considered. He said the U.N. had sent hostage negotiators to Syria to take over discussions from military leaders.
"Negotiations have moved up to another level with the professional negotiators now in place," he said.
The Nusra Front abducted the Fijian soldiers on Thursday and is holding them at an unknown location. The rebels on Thursday also surrounded two Filipino units serving in the U.N. mission that monitors the buffer zone between Israel and Syria, but the Filipino troops escaped over the weekend.
In Manila, Philippines, military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said the 40 Filipino peacekeepers who escaped had not accepted a rebel demand that they give up their firearms and surrender because that would have put the troops in grave danger.
Catapang said the rebel demands for the Fijians' release showed their true nature. "We don't negotiate with terrorists," Catapang said. "We have machine guns and crew-served weapons so if we give them our weapons, this will help create an international problem."
Tikoitoga on Tuesday also released the names of the 45 detained Fijian soldiers, who he said are led by Captain Savenaca Siwatibau Rabuka.
The commander asked Fiji's community and church leaders to help look after the families of the captive troops and asked the public to also offer support.
"I appeal to all Fijians that while we pray for our soldiers in Syria that we be sensitive to the families," he said, adding "the U.N. has assured us they will use all of their available resources for the safe return of our soldiers."
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this story.