BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked militants released 45 Fijian peacekeepers captured two week ago in Syria, ending the U.N.'s fourth crisis over abducted soldiers in the Golan Heights since March 2013 amid questions about the future of its 40-year-old monitoring mission there.
The Fijians were captured on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights by fighters from the Nusra Front, who have been battling Syrian government forces in the contested buffer zone between Syria and Israel. The 1,200-strong U.N. force that has patrolled the zone since 1974 has increasingly been caught in the spillover from Syria's civil war.
U.N. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said "no demands were made and no concessions were made" to secure the release of the peacekeepers.
"No ransom was paid," he said.
Qatar, a chief backer of rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, said it played a role in the release. The official Qatar News Agency reported that the tiny Arab Gulf emirate had "succeeded in the release of the Fijian soldiers" in response to a request from Fiji for its mediation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon thanked the efforts "of all concerned" in the release, without naming anyone. He demanded that all parties respect the mandate of the U.N. force and the right of peacekeepers to move freely and safely, according to a statement from his office.
Fiji's Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama called the peacekeepers heroes who kept their cool under the "most extreme circumstances imaginable." Speaking in Suva early Friday, he said his troops' discipline ensured that no militants were killed and no U.N. soldiers harmed.
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. Two groups of Filipino peacekeepers were also trapped at separate U.N. encampments that day, surrounded by rebel fighters who demanded they surrender. They refused, and both groups eventually escaped — one busting out with the help of Irish colleagues, and the other by slipping away under the cover of darkness.
Jordan's U.N. Ambassador Dina Kawar said the idea of peacekeepers being taken hostage "is just impossible to accept because it will happen more and more, and that will make countries hesitant about sending their armies, so we were very happy."
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the Fijians were released at the Syrian-side of the Quneitra crossing point near Israel and were "in good condition." He told The Associated Press that they crossed into Israeli-controlled Golan territory, were then taken to a U.N. post further north, and then went to Camp Faouar inside the Syrian-controlled Golan, where the peacekeepers stay.
Israel's Channel Two news reported that the Fijians were given food and medical attention after crossing into Israeli-controlled territory.
Fiji's U.N. Mission tweeted a photo of diplomats celebrating with their thumbs up, reading: "Free at last! Thumbs up from the Fiji Permanent Mission in New York to our 45 brave Fijian UNDOF peacekeepers."
The mission, known as UNDOF, was established in 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. For nearly four decades, U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the spillover from the Syrian war has made troop contributors wary and several countries have withdrawn.
Fiji's government, however, has said it has no intention to pull out.
Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, said "my assumption is that the 45 would return home, and I hope they would be swapped out by new troops from Fiji."
UNDOF currently has troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.
But after the latest abduction, Ireland said it would review its participation in the mission. The Philippines has given notice it will not deploy a new contingent when its already-extended stint ends in October.
For the Philippines, the August incident was the third time its peacekeepers got caught up in the Syrian violence.
Twenty-one Filipino peacekeepers were abducted in March 6, 2013 by the Syrian rebel group Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which held them for three days. Another group of four Filipinos was abducted by the Yarmouk rebels in May 7, 2013, and released five days later.
In another abduction, armed men broke into a U.N. outpost in the buffer zone on May 15, 2013, and captured three unarmed military observers from the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization. They were held by the Syrian men for about five hours and released.
Despite the difficulties, U.N. officials and diplomats have insisted that UNDOF's role is crucial to Middle East stability. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said last week that Syria's conflict "only underscores how important it is for us to continue to have observers there monitoring disengagement."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has said UNDOF has been strengthened with armored equipment and other military hardware. The mission has reduced some patrols, but there has been no move to alter its mandate.
Dujarric said the mandate is up for renewal soon and Ban will send Security Council members his report on the mission.
"So I'm sure it will give council members a chance to discuss the situation and the way forward as well," he said.
Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writers Peter Enav in Jerusalem, Maggie Hyde in Cairo, Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.