GOLAN HEIGHTS (Reuters) - Dozens of Fijian U.N. peacekeepers, released by al Qaeda-linked group Nusra Front in Syria, arrived in Israeli-held territory on the Golan Heights on Thursday, an Israeli military spokeswoman said.
“We opened the border and they entered,” the Israeli military spokeswoman said, without giving numbers.
A Reuters witness said after the peacekeepers crossed over they were driven away in a convoy of U.N. minibuses.
Some 45 Fijian soldiers were taken hostage two weeks ago when Islamist militant groups including Nusra attacked them in the volatile frontier area between Syria and Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed their release and, according to a spokesman, demanded that all parties in the area respect the U.N. force’s “mandate, freedom of movement and the safety and security of its personnel.”
Nusra initially said it held the peacekeepers because they were aiding soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Later, sources close to Nusra said it demanded the removal of the group from the West’s terrorist list.
The Nusra group on Wednesday posted a video on its Twitter and YouTube accounts in which the hostages said they expected to be freed soon.
A U.N. source earlier told Reuters the militants had insisted on such a video as a condition of the peacekeepers’ release.
“We are all safe and alive, and we thank Jabhat al-Nusra for keeping us safe and keeping us alive. I’d like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way,” one hostage, who was not identified, said in the footage.
“We understand that with the limited resources that they have, they have provided the best for us and we truly appreciate it and we thank them. We are thankful that Jabhat al-Nusra has kept its word and that we will be going home.”
A UN spokesman said in New York on Thursday no ransom had been requested for the Fijian peacekeepers and none was paid. He said the UN mission in the region remained viable and would continue to fulfill its mandate.
Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama said the released men were heroes and pledged his commitment to providing peacekeepers to the region and elsewhere.
“It is a noble mission that we will continue to perform whenever we are called on by the United Nations,” Bainimarama said in a videotaped statement, adding that the men were in a UN compound.
“They are all healthy, they are in high spirits and they will soon be in contact with their families and loved ones here in Fiji,” he said.
Since independence from Britain in 1970, Fiji has sent more soldiers on U.N. peacekeeping missions than any other nation, on a per capita basis, providing it with much-needed hard currency and enhancing its global standing.
Syria’s three-year-old civil war reached the frontier with Israeli-controlled territory last month when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war. The fighters then turned on the U.N. blue helmets, part of a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line for 40 years. After the Fijians were captured, more than 70 Filipinos spent two days besieged at two locations before reaching safety.
Qatar, one country in the Middle East thought by the United States to have influence with the Islamist militant group, said Fiji had formally requested its assistance in freeing the hostages.
U.S. officials have said that Qatar played a critical role in persuading the Nusra Front to free American journalist Peter Theo Curtis last month, whom the front had been holding hostage since 2012.
Reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Dubai and Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Matt Siegel, Swati Pandey and Lincoln Feast in Sydney; editing by Andrew Roche, Bernard Orr