Freed - UN peacekeepers held by al-Qaeda group

The Fijians were captured by the Nusra Front last month. Picture: AP
The Fijians were captured by the Nusra Front last month. Picture: AP
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The 45 United Nations peacekeepers held captive by an al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group have been released safe and well in Syria’s Golan Heights.

A spokesman for UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said the Fijian soldiers had been released at the Quneitra crossing point in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights, where a 1,200-strong UN force monitors the buffer zone between Syria and Israel.

Fighters from the Nusra Front captured the Fijians late last month. Since then, the frontier zone has been engulfed in heavy clashes between the rebels and Syrian government forces.

A UN statement said: “All the 45 peacekeepers are in good condition and will proceed back to Camp Foar for medical ­assessment.”

The news came soon after yesterday’s release by the militants of an online video showing one of the captive soldiers saying they had not been harmed in any way.

In the 15-minute film, the ­Fijian troops could be seen sitting cross-legged in the background as two men with long beards delivered short speeches in Arabic.

Near the end of the video, one of the Fijian soldiers addressed the camera in English.

He said the date was 9 September and that it was 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 said, adding that they had been treated well by the Nusra Front, given the group has limited resources.

The video surfaced a day after Fiji announced that the peacekeepers would soon be released, then tried to retract the comments, but by then they had been reported around the world. According to the Fijians, the group wanted to be taken off the UN terrorist list, to have humanitarian aid delivered to parts of Syria, and to win compensation for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shoot-out with UN officers.

A Fijian government spokeswoman said the soldiers shown in the video were those being held by the al-Qaeda-linked group. She identified the soldier who spoke as Captain Savenaca Rabuka.

In the video, the two men speaking in Arabic described their version of events leading up to the Fijians’ capture on 28 August.

They said one of them had given assurances the soldiers would not be harmed, and so they were honouring that.

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

In the video, the men speaking Arabic also described consulting with a man named as Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi. Also known as Essam al-Barqawi, he 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 air strike in 2006.

At a news conference in Suva, Fiji’s military chief said his country had been told by the UN in New York that the Nusra Front had agreed to release the men later this week without any conditions or demands.

It is unlikely Fiji would have been given the green light to release any specific information by the UN, which typically does not comment on sensitive captive situations until they are ­resolved.

The Fijian authorities had earlier said the Nusra Front had listed three demands in return for the release of the UN peacekeepers.