Capture of Fiji peacekeepers 'unprecedented event'
A NZ-based professor says 45 Fijian peacekeepers being held by Syrian rebels are being used as bargaining chips in an unprecedented challenge.
A New Zealand-based professor says 45 Fijian peacekeepers being held by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights are being used as bargaining chips in what he says is an unprecedented event.
The Fijian troops were serving as part of a United Nations observer force in the demilitarised zone between Syria and Israel when they were captured last Thursday.
The captors, the al-Qaeda affiliated group al-Nusra, have since made three demands for their release: removal from the UN terrorist list, humanitarian aid, and compensation for three rebels who died in a shootout with UN officers.
The UN has sent negotiators from New York to Syria to try and secure their release, although it's still not known where the men are being held.
Professor Stephen Hoadley, from Auckland University, told Jamie Tahana that such a capture of peacekeepers has never happened before.
STEPHEN HOADLEY: Nothing exactly on this scale. We are talking a large number. There have been examples where peacekeepers have been intimidated and the most notorious one was at Srebrenica in the early 1990s, when the Serbs intimidated the Dutch peacekeepers into releasing the Serbian men and boys who were seeking safe haven in the area the Dutch controlled, but the Dutch themselves were not taken hostage. So this event and the scale and audacity of it is without precedent in UN peacekeeping history.
JAMIE TAHANA: There are reports that the Fijians put down their weapons. What kind of force would they have been up against? Would they have just been overwhelmed and had to go?
SH: As we read the newspapers, it seems there were a series of pickup trucks probably armed with heavy machine guns - the kinds that you see in the news reels with young men riding around - and a number of others in the trucks probably all armed with modern side-arms; M16s or Kalashnikovs. So, as I understand, they were taken by surprise - the trucks then surrounded their encampment. Now every national contingent is under its national control and every Government has its own rules of engagement. The commanding officer of Fiji battalion would have been briefed in Suva. He would have been primarily responsible to his home government even though operational control would be taken from the United Nations sector commander. So the line of command between the UN and Fiji and the battalion commander is a triangular one. So this does create a kind of authority gap in which there's some ambiguity. Now the peacekeeping presumption is that peacekeepers will never use weapons unless they're immediately threatened, so again, we don't know the exact circumstances.
JT: Do we know anything about al-Nusra? What could we determine from their situation and how reasonable would they be for the UN to negotiate with?
SH: We don't know a great deal about it except that it's an al-Qaeda affiliate. Now, affiliate can mean anything; it just means a gang of guys who've got weapons and they declare that they want to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, they take up a name - al-Nusra front, they then carry out some activities, they may tap in to sources of weapons or money, or trade other information with like-rebel groups in adjacent sectors - many of these are geographically based. Now, the good news is we understand that al-Nusra is not affiliated with ISIS, the Islamic State people. They don't seem to be quite as extreme as those who are operating at the eastern end of Syria. So one report indicated they're not into beheading, so that's a ray of hope that the Fijians may in fact be looked after and not assassinated or massacred and we hope that some negotiation can then ease the tension. We have heard demands for release of the al-Nusra prisoners and other probably outrageous and unfulfillable demands. So obviously the Fijians are being used as a bargaining chip, they're not important in themselves.
JT: Fiji's kind of powerless here isn't it? The three demands al-Nusra have put out all relate to the United Nations and other much larger powers. They're just pawns in a game here are they?
SH: You're quite right, Fiji can't really do anything unless there's a direct demand for ransom, and then the Fiji government might be under some pressure to provide some cash to al-Nusra to release their own peacekeepers. But otherwise no, al-Nusra obviously has its eye on a wider political goal. They have made it quite clear that the Fijians are just incidental.
JT: And because no such thing has happened to US peacekeepers before, we don't know what could happen next. This could drag out for weeks?
SH: Very good point, there's no tidy operational plan as to how to respond to this sort of circumstance. These decision makers will be making it up as they go along - making up is maybe not the right word - they'll be using the best knowledge and the best judgment that they can to adapt to a changing and an unprecedented circumstance. But the outcome, no, you or I couldn't predict the outcome. The peacekeepers might walk back across the border unharmed any time and al-Nusra may then portray itself as a benevolent organisation that has a humane policy towards peacekeepers, or the opposite could happen and we could see the loss of life. So we're in uncharted territory.
JT: What about Fiji's decision to remain in the Golan Heights? The situation there's deteriorated incredibly with the Syrian civil war, we've seen other countries withdraw. What do you make of Fiji's decision to stay?
SH: Every government's going to make that decision on the ground of, first of all, prestige and pride and that would mean that they would want to stay to the end of their contract, the end of their promised tour of duty to keep faith with the UN and with the other peacekeepers around. And set against that is the fear that there will be body bags, there will be captured individuals, there will be embarrassment. That they will find it impossible to do their job and that would then lead a government to withdraw its peacekeeping forces. So this is a decision each national contingent makes, the UN can't stop any national contingent from withdrawing, so yeah, it's an awkward situation.
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