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UN confirms militants have released kidnapped UN peacekeepers

The Al Qaeda-linked group has safely returned 45 Fijian troops, kidnapped at the Golan Heights.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Updated: 1.37 pm

AL-QAEDA’S SYRIAN AFFILIATE Al-Nusra Front has freed 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers whom it kidnapped after the capture of a border crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, two weeks ago

According to the Associated Press, UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said this afternoon: “We can confirm they have been released.”

Haq said they were released at the Quneitra crossing point in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights.

A UN statement this afternoon said:

All the 45 peacekeepers are in good condition and will proceed back to Camp Foar for medical assessment.

Defence Minister Simon Coveney, who has faced calls to withdraw Irish troops from the Golan Heights, welcomed the release of their Fijian counterparts in a statement.

This is an important development in the context of the review by the UN of the UNDOF mission and in particular the question of Ireland’s continued participation with the mission.

Speaking to the media in Cork this afternoon, Coveney confirmed that Irish troops had not been involved in the release of the kidnapped peacekeepers, and said a ransom had not been demanded or paid.

We now need to review the mission fundamentally in terms of its structure and its make-up, and to manage risk levels that peacekeepers are exposed to, in a way that responds appropriately to changes on the ground.
Yesterday in Milan I met the UN’s head of peacekeeping and made it very clear to him what we need if Irish troops are going to remain as part of that mission.

‘It is a very happy day’

The Al-Nusra militants had earlier promised they would return the Fijian troops.

In a video released late last night through its media wing, the group said it had consulted religious leaders and they had advised “that we should release these prisoners”.

Al-Nusra had originally demanded various terms for the release of the peacekeepers, including the delivery of aid to areas besieged by the Syrian government, the release of prisoners and the group’s removal from a UN terror blacklist.

A Fijian peacekeeper, who did not identify himself, also spoke in the footage, confirming that the group had pledged to free the soldiers.

“It is Tuesday, the ninth of September, I would like to mention to you that it is a very happy day,” the peacekeeper says in English.

We have been informed that we will be released soon and we are all very happy to be going home.

The peacekeeper added that the troops “are all safe and alive” and thanks Al-Nusra “for keeping us safe and keeping us alive.”

“I would like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way,” he said.

The peacekeepers, all Fijian nationals, were taken hostage two weeks ago when Al-Nusra fighters stormed the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing that leads to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Earlier in the week, the Fijian government appeared to announce that the troops were to be released imminently in posts on social media that were subsequently removed.

A Fijian government spokesman told AFP that the posts were the result of someone having “misinterpreted” the situation.

The Fijians are part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been stationed in the Golan Heights since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

There are currently 1,200 peacekeepers from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.

- © AFP, 2014

Contains additional reporting from the Associated Press.

Read: Irish peacekeepers safe but “on high alert” after Golan Heights kidnappings >

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