This Sept. 24, 2009 photo shows U.N. soldiers watching the border between Israel and Syria, on the Golan Heights, near the Qunitra crossing border between the two countries. / Atef Safadi, epa
SUVA, Fiji (AP) - Fiji's military confirmed Friday that 43 of its soldiers, working as U.N. peacekeepers, have been captured by a militant group on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Fijian Commander Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said the soldiers were alive and unharmed. He said talks between the U.N. and the unidentified rebel group had begun and negotiations would be pursued further at daybreak.
Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels had converged on the soldiers' post at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday.
He said the rebels demanded the soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. The Fijians were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location. He said he's been told they were later transported back to their original post.
"We are all doing our best to ensure the safety of the 43 that are currently being held captive," Tikoitoga said.
He said Fiji would not be pressured into withdrawing from its peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights, an area that is divided between Israel and Syria.
"We will not shy away from that responsibility under these circumstances," he said. "We will continue to work very hard for the release of our men and at the same time we will put all our men on alert to ensure that no further incidents of this sort happen to them."
He said the names of the captured soldiers are being withheld and that their families will be informed in due course.
The United Nations said Friday that as well as the 43 detained Fijian soldiers, another 81 Philippine peacekeepers had been effectively trapped after being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.
The developments have come during a period of increased fighting between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.
The statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, have been fighting the Syrian military near the Golan Heights.
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