Qaeda-linked Syria rebels release Fijian peacekeepers

GOLAN HEIGHTS, Jalaa Marey- Al-Qaeda linked rebels in Syria on Thursday released a group of 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers they kidnapped two weeks ago in the Golan Heights, a UN spokesman said.
The peacekeepers, snatched from Quneitra on the Syrian side of the strategic plateau on August 28 by fighters from the Al-Nusra Front, were released unharmed and in "good condition," the spokesman said.

They were part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which monitors a 1974 ceasefire agreement between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.
"Today at 2:30 pm local time, the 45 Fijian peacekeepers who had been detained were handed to UNDOF," the spokesperson said.
"All the 45 peacekeepers are in good condition," he added, saying they would undergo medical checkups.
Shortly afterwards, they crossed from Syrian territory into the Israeli-controlled sector, an Israeli army spokeswoman told AFP.
Fijian leader Voreqe Bainimarama welcomed the release of the 45 peacekeepers, hailing the men as heroes after their two-week ordeal.
Bainimarama said the Blue Helmets were "healthy and in high spirits" and determined to continue their mission in the Middle East.
"These 45 men are heroes," he told reporters. "They kept their cool and showed restraint under the most extreme circumstances imaginable.
"Because of their discipline, not one militant was killed and none of our soldiers were harmed."
An AFP correspondent at the scene said the released Fijians were taken in UN vehicles to a UN base in Israel.
But shortly afterwards, they returned to Syrian territory through a different crossing point, a military spokeswoman told AFP.
A UN spokesman said the peacekeepers crossed back into Syria "and are currently at Camp Faouar undergoing medical attention. We understand that they are in good condition."
The spokesman said the abductors had made no demands to secure the release of the 45, "and there were no concessions."
The Fijians had been captured by fighters from the Al-Nusra Front after they seized control of the Quneitra crossing following a battle with troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
They keepers were forced to surrender their weapons and taken hostage.
A second group of peacekeepers -- 81 Filipinos -- was surrounded by the rebels, but held their ground, refused to lay down their weapons and later managed to escape.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release of the peacekeepers, with a spokesman saying he appreciated "the efforts of all concerned to secure their safe release."
- Peacekeepers repeatedly targeted -
Quneitra is the only formal crossing point between the Syrian and the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights.
The capture of the peacekeepers triggered a sharp condemnation from the UN Security Council, which demanded their "unconditional and immediate release."
UNDOF has played a key role in monitoring the peace between Damascus and Israel over the past four decades.
Israel, technically still at war with Syria, seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. It later annexed the territory in a move never recognised by the international community.
Six countries contribute troops to the 1,200-strong UN force on the Golan, including Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, The Netherlands and The Philippines.
UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights were detained twice last year, but all of them were eventually released safely.
Some 21 Filipino peacekeepers were abducted by Syrian rebels for five days in March 2013. Another four were captured by the same group in May, raising fears over the growing number of incidents targeting UN forces on the plateau.
In a video released late Wednesday, Al-Nusra said it was going to free the Fijians, dropping earlier demands for the delivery of aid to areas besieged by the Syrian government, a prisoner release and the group's removal from a UN terror blacklist.
The video also featured an unidentified Fijian peacekeeper who confirmed the group had pledged to free the soldiers.
"We have been informed that we will be released soon and we are all very happy to be going home," he said.
The peacekeeper thanked 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.

Friday, September 12th 2014
Jalaa Marey

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