ISTANBUL – The Syrian branch of al-Qaida has acknowledged that it captured 45 U.N. peacekeepers in southern Syria, saying that they were being held in retaliation for what the group called the United Nations’ failure to help the people of Syria during the country’s civil war.
The group, the Nusra Front, also accused the peacekeeping force, which has monitored the demarcation line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since 1974, of protecting Israeli-controlled territory while doing nothing to stop the killing on the Syrian side.
The statement, released late Saturday, contained a group photo of the captured peacekeepers, who are from Fiji, as well as a photograph of their identification cards. The statement said they were being treated well and were given food and medical care, but it issued no demands for their release.
The Nusra Front said it was holding 45 peacekeepers, although the United Nations had said that 44 were being held, a discrepancy that could not immediately be explained.
The statement was the first confirmation from the Nusra Front, one of the many groups fighting the forces of President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war, that it was holding the peacekeepers, who were captured Thursday, one day after rebels seized a crossing point on the demarcation line from Syrian forces.
Other rebels in the area had condemned the Nusra Front for capturing the peacekeepers and called for their release.
The statement followed attacks by rebels believed to be the Nusra Front on two other bases used by 72 peacekeepers from the Philippines on Saturday. One group of 32 Philippine soldiers managed to flee to the Israeli side of the frontier after receiving backup from the peacekeeping mission’s “reaction force,” the United Nations said.
On Sunday, the United Nations said in a statement that the other group of 40 Philippine soldiers had left their post at night during a cease-fire between them and “the armed elements” and had reached a safe location an hour later.
The United Nations did not mention the statement by the Nusra Front or give any new information on the captured Philippine soldiers.
In its statement, the Nusra Front accused the United Nations of failing to help Syrians during the civil war, which has killed more than 190,000 people over more than three years.
“Chemical attacks did not move its decisions, nor did the barrels of death that harvested thousands of innocent souls, nor photos of torture in the depths of prisons, nor tens of massacres against women and children,” the statement said. “Barrels of death” is a reference to barrels filled with explosives that Syrian government forces have dropped from helicopters on insurgent-held areas.
It said the United Nations had responded with “mere statements and empty words that completely ignored the crimes and massacres” committed by Assad’s forces.
The statement, referring to Israel, also said that the peacekeepers worked “to guarantee security and protection for the borders of the Zionist entity, which has violated Muslim homes, while at the same time completely ignoring the blood of the Muslims that is shed daily on the other side of the border.”
The peacekeeping force in question, the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, is responsible only for monitoring the frontier between Israeli- and Syrian-controlled zones and has no mandate to intervene in Syria’s civil war.
While disagreements among permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have left it unable to agree on resolutions meant to hasten the end of the war, the body unanimously passed a resolution in July allowing for aid to be sent into Syria without the consent of Assad’s government. That resolution strengthened the provisions of an earlier resolution, and cross-border aid shipments began soon after.
Assad had objected to such aid, saying that all assistance needed to be coordinated with his government. Critics accused him of manipulating humanitarian aid to ensure that it did not enter rebel areas.
Last year, the Security Council adopted a resolution to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, a process that the United States says has been completed.
The United Nations has also offered aid to the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees it has registered in neighboring countries.
The Nusra Front has remained loyal to al-Qaida’s international leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, while the other major extremist group in Syria, the Islamic State has rejected al-Zawahri and gone its own way, declaring an Islamic caliphate in territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.
So far, the Nusra Front has kept its efforts focused on fighting Assad’s government – leading at times to surprising developments. The Nusra Front’s seizure of the crossing last week put it directly on the edge of an Israeli-controlled territory. But despite frequent calls over decades by al-Qaida’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden, for attacks on Israel, the group is not known to have deliberately targeted Israeli soldiers.
In its statement Sunday, the Nusra Front complained about being classified as a terrorist organization, portraying itself as a force that had come to aid Syria’s Sunni Muslims.
“Whoever defends the oppressed and the innocent is the criminal in their judgment,” the statement said.
Amid the heightened tensions along the Syrian-Israeli frontier, the Israeli military said Sunday that it had intercepted a remotely piloted drone from Syria that breached Israeli-controlled airspace above the 1974 demarcation line near Quneitra. The military said the drone had been shot down by a Patriot surface-to-air missile.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said the drone had appeared to be on a mission to gather intelligence for the Syrian army or to prepare a counterattack against rebels on the Syrian side of the frontier. There was no indication that it had been on a mission to attack Israel.
Israel has repeatedly declared its intention of staying out of the fighting in Syria, but it has responded swiftly whenever the violence has spilled into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, whether intentionally or as a result of errant fire.