U.N.: 45 Fijian peacekeepers freed in Syria

This image made from video posted on a militant social media account on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014 shows U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji held captive by militants from the Nusra Front in Syria. Al-Qaida-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 U.N. monitoring force into the chaos of Syria's civil war. Arabic reads, "we truly understand the limited resources that Nusra Front have." (AP Photo via militant social media account)

BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked Syrian militants on Thursday released all 45 Fijian peacekeepers they had held captive for two weeks, bringing an end to a crisis that ensnared the U.N. monitoring force in the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

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

All 45 peacekeepers “are in good condition” and were being taken for a quick medical assessment, a U.N. statement said.

The Fijians were taken hostage the same day that nearly 80 Filipino peacekeepers were trapped by Syrian opposition fighters. The Filipino peacekeepers later escaped.

The hostage crisis raised questions about the future of the decades-old U.N. Golan mission, as participating nations threatened to pull their troops out because of Syria’s escalating violence.

The Fijian troops were captured Aug. 28, a day after militants seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad’s troops.

U.N. Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said they were released at Syrian-side of the Quneitra crossing point near Israel (see video). He told AP that they crossed into the Israeli-controlled Golan territory, were then taken to a U.N. post further north and would then go to Camp Faouar inside the Syrian-controlled Golan.

Israel’s Channel Two news reported that the Fijians were given food and medical attention after crossing into Israeli-controlled territory.

An unidentified peacekeeper expressed relief.

“We’re all very happy to be safe and alive,” he told the Israeli channel.

The same day the Fijians were taken captive, two groups of Filipino peacekeepers were trapped at separate U.N. encampments, surrounded by rebel fighters who demanded they surrender. They refused, and both groups of Philippine troops eventually escaped — one busting out with the help of Irish colleagues, and the other by slipping away under the cover of darkness.

At U.N. headquarters, the Fijians’ release was greeted with relief and renewed indignation.

Fiji’s U.N. Mission tweeted a photo of diplomats celebrating with their thumbs up, reading: “Free at last! Thumbs up from the Fiji Permanent Mission in New York to our 45 brave Fijian UNDOF peacekeepers.”

Jordan’s U.N. Ambassador Dina Kawar said the idea of peacekeepers being taken hostage “is just impossible to accept because it will happen more and more, and that will make countries hesitant about sending their armies, so we were very happy.”

The U.N. mission in the Golan Heights was established in 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria has demanded the return of the land in past peace talks.

For nearly four decades, the U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the Golan Heights has increasingly become a battlefield in Syria’s civil war.

The mission has troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. Several countries have withdrawn their peacekeepers as fighting between militants and Syrian troops escalated.

The Fijians’ release came 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 Sept. 9 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 and well.

“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.

In the video, the two men speaking in Arabic describe their version of events leading up to the Fijians’ capture. They say they had given assurances the soldiers would not be harmed, and were honoring that promise.

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

The Fijians said the group had also demanded to be taken off the U.N. terrorist list and wanted compensation for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shootout with U.N. officers.

___

Lederer reported from the United Nations in New York. Associated Press writers Peter Enav in Jerusalem and Maggie Hyde in Cairo contributed to this report.

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