A group of 45 United Nations peacekeepers from Fiji seized by al Qaida-linked militants in Syria was released on Thursday after being held captive for two weeks.
The Nusra Front captured the peacekeepers last month during battles with Syrian government forces in a buffer zone near the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan Heights. The 1,200-strong U.N. force patrols a strip separating Israeli and Syrian troops.
After their release outside a U.N. base in the buffer zone, a U.N. statement said the peacekeepers were “in good condition.” They were later taken to Israeli-controlled territory before returning to a base on the Syrian side of the Golan.
“We are all very happy to be safe and alive,” an unidentified peacekeeper told Israel’s Channel Two television.
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The Nusra Front said it was honoring a pledge to give the U.N. troops safe passage.
In a video released hours before the release, two representatives of the Islamist group said it had dropped its conditions for freeing the Fijians: allowing aid to besieged rebel strongholds and the release of prisoners held by the Syrian government.
One of the speakers, identified as a doctor accompanying the Nusra Front fighters, said that they had to use the Fijian troops’ base in order to reach a Syrian army objective with minimal casualties, and that he had promised the peacekeepers that they would not be hurt.
The video, which showed the peacekeepers sitting cross-legged on the ground, ended with the commander of the Fijian troops thanking his captors for treating his men well, and assuring viewers that “we have not been harmed in any way.”
During the recent fighting, two groups of Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by rebels and attacked after they refused to surrender. One group was extricated from their base by other U.N. forces, and the other group fled to safety under cover of darkness.
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force patrols a 45-mile long buffer strip on the Golan Heights established under terms of a 1974 disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria that followed the 1973 Middle East war. It has troops from six countries that also include the Netherlands, Nepal, India and Ireland.
Escalating clashes between rebel and Syrian government forces in the buffer zone have raised questions about the future of the U.N. force, with some participating nations pulling out or warning they would consider withdrawing their troops because of fears for their safety.