Beirut: Al-Qaida-linked militants released 45 Fijian peacekeepers captured two week ago in Syria, ending the UN’s fourth crisis over abducted soldiers in the Golan Heights since March 2013 amid questions about the future of its 40-year-old monitoring mission there.
The Fijians were captured on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights by fighters from the Nusra Front, who have been battling Syrian government forces in the contested buffer zone between Syria and Israel.
The 1,200-strong UN force that has patrolled the zone since 1974 has increasingly been caught in the spillover from Syria’s civil war.
UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said “no demands were made and no concessions were made” to secure the release of the peacekeepers.”No ransom was paid,” he said.
Qatar, a chief backer of rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, said it played a role in the release. The official Qatar News Agency reported that the tiny Arab Gulf emirate had “succeeded in the release of the Fijian soldiers” in response to a request from Fiji for its mediation.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon thanked the efforts “of all concerned” in the release, without naming anyone. He demanded that all parties respect the mandate of the UN force and the right of peacekeepers to move freely and safely, according to a statement from his office.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama called the peacekeepers heroes who kept their cool under the “most extreme circumstances imaginable.” Speaking in Suva early today, he said his troops’ discipline ensured that no militants were killed and no UN soldiers harmed.
The Fijian troops were captured August 28, a day after militants seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad’s troops. Two groups of Filipino peacekeepers were also trapped at separate UN encampments that day, surrounded by rebel fighters who demanded they surrender.
They refused, and both groups eventually escaped one busting out with the help of Irish colleagues, and the other by slipping away under the cover of darkness.
Jordan’s UN 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.”