Jabat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliated rebel group fighting in Syria, released 45 Fijian soldiers serving in the Golan on Thursday. The IDF confirmed that the UN peacekeepers safely arrived in Israel following approximately two weeks in captivity.
Al-Nusra originally took the Fijians prisoner following clashes between government forces and rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. By the beginning of September, Islamist forces captured much of the border with Israel, including the Quneitra crossing. Syrian government forces bombed rebel-held facilities near UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) outposts, stationed in the area since the mid-1970s.
The captured Fijian peacekeepers were shown in a photo released by a militant website. (Photo: AP)
In a video posted to the Internet, al-Nusra fighters took responsibility for kidnapping the peacekeepers, parading them in front of the camera. The Islamists gave the international community three demands for the hostages to be released, including removing al-Nusra from the UN terrorism list, distributing of humanitarian aid to rebel held areas near Damascus, and paying compensation for three fighters killed during a gunbattle with UN soldiers. None of the conditions appeared to be met when the Fijians were freed.
Separately, 81 other members of UNDOF, mostly Filipinos, had been surrounded by the Islamist militants late last month. After a subsequent firefight lasting seven hours, peacekeepers from two posts were able to quietly escape from Syria, under the cover of darkness, to Camp Ziuoani inside Israel. According to an Irish newspaper, the IDF also helped evacuate Irish troops stationed with UN in Syria following the threat of encirclement from jihadist rebels.
Approximately 1,200 UN soldiers from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines monitor the Golan. Before the kidnappings, the Filipino government announced it would withdraw its 332 soldiers from UNDOF over the next two to three months due to the deteriorating security in the area. Amid the Syrian civil war, and its occasional spillovers into Israel, the capacity of the UN mission seems increasingly limited. Even with proposed reinforcements from the Czech Republic and Ireland, the organization could prove less relevant without a revised mandate.