Jubilant Fijians celebrated Friday as 45 UN peacekeepers from the South Pacific nation were released by their Al-Qaeda linked kidnappers in Syria after a two-week ordeal.
Fijian leader Voreqe Bainimarama said the prayers of the deeply religious South Pacific nation had been answered with confirmation that fighters from the Al-Nusra Front had released the Blue Helmets unharmed.
“I know all Fijians join me in feeling a great sense of relief and joy,” he told an early morning press conference to welcome the news, which broke in the middle of the night in the Pacific.
The nation of 900,000, which has a long history of involvement in UN peacekeeping missions, had been on tenterhooks about the fate of the troops, who were taken prisoner on the Golan Heights on August 28.
Some Fijians took to the government’s information ministry’s Facebook page to celebrate the news of the release. “Fiji prayed and God answered. We are coming home,” Ahmad Khan said, while Leanne Brummell joked the men “will have some stories” to tell when drinking kava, a local root beverage.
Fiji’s military commander Mosese Tikoitoga said his men were already celebrating when he held a video call with them on Friday morning.
“They were in a grog (kava) ceremony after a welcoming service for them, you could hear the singing, drinking in the background, all the laughter, so they were back in the Fijian mood,” he said. “So I assume that all is well with them.”
The peacekeepers were part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which monitors a 1974 ceasefire agreement between Israel and Syria on the Golan.
They were forced to surrender their weapons and taken hostage when the Al-Nusra militants seized control of the Quneitra crossing following a battle with troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
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.
The Fijians were released at 2:30pm local time on Thursday and taken for medical checks.
Bainimarama, himself a former UN peacekeeper, said they 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.
A UN spokesman said the abductors had made no demands to secure their release, “and there were no concessions”.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed their release, 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 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 rugged 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 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.