World

Fijian UN peacekeepers, captured in Golan Heights, released in Syria

Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian militants released all 45 Fijian peacekeepers they had held captive for two weeks, bringing an end to a crisis that ensnared the UN monitoring force in the chaos of Syria's civil war.

All members of the UN force 'are in good condition'

The Fijian UN peacekeepers were captured Aug. 28, a day after militants seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad's troops. (Hanin Network Website/Associated Press)

Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian militants on Thursday released all 45 Fijian peacekeepers they had held captive for two weeks, bringing an end to a crisis that ensnared the UN monitoring force in the chaos of Syria's civil war.

Fighters from the Nusra Front captured the Fijian troops late last month in the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights, where a 1,200-strong UN force patrols the disputed buffer zone between Syria and Israel. The area along the frontier has since been engulfed in heavy clashes between the militants and the Syrian military.

All 45 peacekeepers "are in good condition" and were being taken for a quick medical assessment, a UN statement said.

The Fijians were taken hostage the same day that nearly 80 Filipino peacekeepers were trapped by Syrian opposition fighters. The Filipino peacekeepers later escaped.

The hostage crisis raised questions about the future of the decades-old UN Golan mission, as participating nations threatened to pull their troops out because of Syria's escalating violence.

Troops captured Aug. 28

The Fijian troops were captured Aug. 28, a day after militants seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad's troops.

UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said they were released at Syrian-side of the Quneitra crossing point near Israel. He told AP that they crossed into the Israeli-controlled Golan territory, were then taken to a UN post further north and would then go to Camp Faouar inside the Syrian-controlled Golan.

Qatar's Foreign Ministry said it played a role in winning the release of the peacekeepers through mediation. Qatar said it became involved at at Fiji's request. The official Qatar News Agency reported late Thursday that the tiny Arab Gulf emirate had "succeeded in the release of the Fijian soldiers."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release of the peacekeepers and thanked the efforts of "all concerned," without naming anyone, according to his office.

Israel's Channel Two news reported that the Fijians were given food and medical attention after crossing into Israeli-controlled territory.

An unidentified peacekeeper expressed relief.

"We're all very happy to be safe and alive," he told the Israeli channel.

The UN mission in the Golan Heights was established in 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria has demanded the return of the land in past peace talks.

For nearly four decades, the UN monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the Golan Heights has increasingly become a battlefield in Syria's civil war.

The mission has troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. Several countries have withdrawn their peacekeepers as fighting between militants and Syrian troops escalated.

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