Syria rebels free 45 Fijian peacekeepers

2014-09-11 16:40
A screen grab of the kidnapped UN Fiji peacekeepers. (Hanin Network Website, AP)

A screen grab of the kidnapped UN Fiji peacekeepers. (Hanin Network Website, AP)

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Beirut - Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels on Thursday released all 45 Fijian peacekeepers they had held captive for two weeks, the United Nations said, bringing an end to a crisis that had pulled the UN monitoring force into the chaos of Syria's civil war.

Fighters from the Nusra Front captured the Fijian troops late last month in the Golan Heights, where a 1 200-strong UN force patrols the buffer zone between Syria and Israel. The area along the frontier has been engulfed in heavy clashes since then between the rebels and the Syrian military.

"We can confirm they have been released," UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said on Thursday. He said they were freed at the Quneitra crossing point in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights.

The UN said in a separate statement that all 45 of the Fijian troops "are in good condition" and will be taken for a quick medical assessment.

The Fijian hostages were captured on 28 August, one day after rebels seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad's troops.

The same day the Fijians were taken captive, nearly 80 Filipino peacekeepers were trapped at two UN encampments, surrounded by rebel fighters who demanded they surrender. The Filipinos refused, and both groups of Philippine troops eventually escaped - one busting out with the help of Irish colleagues who came to rescue them, and the other by slipping away under the cover of darkness.

The Fijians' release comes just hours after the Nusra Front posted a video online in which the captive peacekeepers can be seen sitting cross-legged in the background as two men with long beards deliver short speeches in Arabic. Near the end of the video, one of the Fijian soldiers addresses the camera in English. He says the date is 9 September and it's a "very happy day".

"We've been informed that we will be released soon, and we are all very happy to be going home," he says, adding that all the soldiers are alive, safe and well.

Nusra Front

"I would like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way," he says, adding that they have been treated well by the Nusra Front, given that the group has limited resources.

In the video, the two men speaking in Arabic describe their version of events leading up to the Fijians capture on 28 August. They say one of them had given assurances the soldiers would not be harmed, and so they were honouring that.

The men say they wanted to complete a prisoner exchange and to have humanitarian aid delivered to besieged parts of Syria, but denied reports they had asked for the Nusra Front to be removed from the UN terrorist list.

During the video, the men speaking Arabic also describe consulting with Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi.

Also known as Essam al-Barqawi, al-Maqdisi was released by Jordanian authorities in June after serving a five-year sentence on terror charges. He was the mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a US airstrike in 2006.

According to the Fijians, the group had demanded to be taken off the UN terrorist list, wanted humanitarian aid delivered to parts of Syria, and wanted compensation for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shoot-out with UN officers.

Read more on:    un  |  syria  |  fiji

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