UN: 45 Fijian Peacekeepers Freed in Syria

BEIRUT (AP) -
U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji drive their vehicles after they were released by Al-Qaida-linked Syrian terrorists in the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights, seen from the border of the Israeli side Thursday. (AP Photo/Gil Eliyahu)
U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji drive their vehicles after they were released by Al-Qaida-linked Syrian terrorists in the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights, seen from the border of the Israeli side Thursday. (AP Photo/Gil Eliyahu)

Al-Qaida-linked terrorists released 45 Fijian peacekeepers captured two week ago in Syria, ending the U.N.’s fourth crisis over abducted soldiers in the Golan Heights since March 2013, amid questions about the future of the 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 U.N. force that has patrolled the zone since 1974 has increasingly been caught in the spillover from Syria’s civil war.

U.N. 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.

U.N. 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 U.N. force and the right of peacekeepers to move freely and safely, according to a statement from his office.

The Fijian troops were captured Aug. 28, a day after terrorists 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 U.N. 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.

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” about the release of the peacekeepers, said Jordan’s U.N. Ambassador Dina Kawar.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the Fijians were released at the Syrian-side of the Quneitra crossing point near Israel and were “in good condition.”