UN peacekeepers held by al-Qaida affiliate in Syria freed in Golan

IDF says Israel border with Syria opened to allow entrance to peacekeepers from Fiji.

By REUTERS
September 11, 2014 16:07
3 minute read.
Fijian UN peacekeepers

Fijian UN peacekeepers. (photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)

JERUSALEM - Fijian peacekeepers, released by Syria rebels on Thursday, crossed into Israeli-held territory on the Golan Heights, an IDF military spokeswoman said.

"We opened the border and they entered," the spokeswoman said, without giving any numbers.

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The United Nations said all 45 Fijians, who had been held by al-Qaida-backed Nusra Front fighters for the past two weeks, had been released.
An al Qaeda-backed militant group that seized 45 U.N. peacekeepers releases video in which the hostages, from the South Pacific nation of Fiji, say they expect to be released soon.

The United Nations on Thursday confirmed the release of all 45 Fijian peacekeepers who had been held for two weeks by al-Qaida-linked militants in the Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border.

"Today at 1430 hours local time, the 45 Fijian peacekeepers who had been detained were handed to UNDOF at Position 80," the UN press office said in a statement. "All the 45 peacekeepers are in good condition and will proceed back to Camp Foar for medical assessment."

The Fijians were kidnapped last month by Islamist fighters battling the Syrian army after the militants overran a crossing point in the so-called disengagement zone that the UN peacekeeping mission known as UNDOF has monitored since 1974. The cease-fire line was agreed after a 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

The Nusra Front on Wednesday posted a video on its Twitter and YouTube accounts in which the hostages, from the South Pacific nation of Fiji, said they expected to be freed soon.

The head of Fiji's army said on Wednesday the Islamist militant group had dropped all of its demands to free the 45 hostages, but at least slightly back-pedaled later in the day as the situation appeared to deteriorate.

It was unclear whether the video, carried by the SITE monitoring service, was made before or after the confusion surrounding those comments, but a UN source earlier told Reuters that the militants had insisted on such a video as a condition for the peacekeepers' release.

"By the way, we are all safe and alive, and we thank Jabhat al-Nusra for keeping us safe and keeping us alive. I'd like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way," one hostage, who was not identified, said, using the Nusra Front's full name.

"We understand that with the limited resources that they have, they have provided the best for us and we truly appreciate it and we thank them. We are thankful that Jabhat al-Nusra has kept its word and that we will be going home."

Syria's three-year civil war reached the frontier with Israel last month when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.

The fighters then turned on the UN blue helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line for 40 years. After the Fijians were captured, more than 70 Filipinos spent two days besieged at two locations before reaching safety.

The Nusra Front had demanded compensation for fighters killed during the confrontation, humanitarian assistance for its supporters and its removal from the UN list of terrorist organizations.

Qatar, one country in the Middle East thought by the United States to have influence with the Islamist militant group, said Fiji had formally requested its assistance in freeing the hostages.

US officials have said that Qatar played a critical role in persuading the Nusra Front to free American journalist Peter Theo Curtis last month, whom the front had been holding hostage since 2012.

Since independence from Britain in 1970, Fiji has sent more soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions than any other nation, on a per capita basis, which provides its stalled economy with much-needed hard currency and helps to bolster its global standing.


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