BEIRUT (AP) – The 45 Fijian peacekeepers held captive by an al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group are alive and well and will be released soon, one of the hostages said in a video released Thursday by the militants.
Fighters from the Nusra Front captured the Fijian troops late last month in the Golan Heights, where a 1,200-strong UN force monitors the buffer zone between Syria and Israel.
The frontier zone has been engulfed in heavy clashes since then between the rebels and Syrian government forces.
In a 15-minute video posted online Thursday, the Fijian troops can be seen sitting cross-legged in the background as two men with long beards deliver short speeches in Arabic. Near the end of the video, one of the Fijian soldiers addresses the camera in English. He says the date is Sept 9 and it’s a “very happy day.”
“We’ve been informed that we will be released soon, and we are all very happy to be going home,” he says, adding that all the soldiers are alive, safe and well.
An unidentified UN peacekeeper and hostage speaks in an unknown location, in this still image from video said to be recorded by the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front on September 9 and obtained by Reuters on September 11. Al-Jazeera television said on Thursday the al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front group released UN peacekeepers it seized two weeks ago on the Golan Heights – REUTERS
“I would like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way,” he says, adding that they have been treated well by the Nusra Front, given the group has limited resources.
It’s unclear whether the soldier is speaking freely or under duress.
Fijian government spokeswoman Sharon Smith-Johns said the soldiers shown in the video are those being held by the al-Qaeda-linked group. She identified the soldier who speaks as Captain Savenaca Rabuka.
In the video, the two men speaking in Arabic describe their version of events leading up to the Fijians capture on Aug 28.
They say one of them had given assurances the soldiers would not be harmed, and so they were honoring that.
The men say they wanted to complete a prisoner exchange and to have humanitarian aid delivered to besieged parts of Syria, but denied reports they had asked for the Nusra Front to be removed from the UN terrorist list.
During the video, the men speaking Arabic also describe consulting with Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi.
Also known as Essam al-Barqawi, al-Maqdisi was released by Jordanian authorities in June after serving a five-year sentence on terror charges. He was the mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a US airstrike in 2006.
The video surfaced a day after Fiji may have jumped the gun by announcing that the peacekeepers would soon be released.
At a Wednesday morning news conference in Suva, Fiji’s military chief said Fiji had been told by UN headquarters in New York that the Nusra Front had agreed to release the men later this week without any conditions or demands.
The South Pacific nation later tried to retract the comments, but by then they had been reported around the world.
It is unlikely Fiji would have been given the green light to release any specific information by the UN, which typically doesn’t comment on sensitive captive situations until they are resolved.