The al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front released 45 U.N. peacekeepers it had captured two weeks ago in Golan Heights, Al Jazeera reported Thursday. Earlier in the day, a video posted by the group showing the troops it had abducted was confirmed to be authentic by Fiji.
The video shows two Arabic-speaking men with the Fijian soldiers sitting in the background. Toward the end of the 15-minute video, a Fijian soldier speaks in English and says that the date is Sept. 9 and describes it as a “very happy day,” according to an Associated Press, or AP, report. Sharon Smith-Johns, a Fijian government spokeswoman, confirmed that the soldiers shown in the video are the same ones that were kidnapped by the Nusra Front, and identified the soldier who spoke in the video as Captain Savenaca Rabuka.
"We've been informed that we will be released soon, and we are all very happy to be going home," Rabuka says. "I would like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way," he says, adding that all the soldiers are alive and well, and the troops have been treated well by the Nusra Front.
Two weeks ago, the al Qaeda-backed Islamist militant group had seized the 45 U.N. soldiers who had been posted on the Golan Heights.
The Arabic-speaking men in the video describe how the Fijian troops were captured on Aug. 28 and say that the soldiers were not harmed. The men add that they want to complete a prisoner exchange and demand humanitarian aid to be delivered to war-torn parts of Syria. However, the men deny claims that the Nusra Front had asked to be taken off a U.N. terrorist list.
In the video, the men also say they consulted with Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, who is also known as Essam al-Barqawi and was imprisoned for five years on a terrorism charge by Jordan before being released in June. Maqdisi is reported to be the mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was head of al Qaeda in Iraq before being killed in a 2006 U.S. airstrike.
On Wednesday, Fiji's military chief said, the country had been told by the U.N. that the Nusra Front would release the kidnapped troops later in the week without any conditions or demands. Later, the country tried to retract the statement but not before the world's media had reported on it.
Earlier, Fijian officials had said that the Nusra Front had listed three demands for the troops' release. The demands were that the group be taken off the U.N. terrorist list, delivery of humanitarian aid to war-torn parts of Syria as well as compensation of the deaths of three of its fighters who it said were killed in a gun battle with U.N. troops.
On Wednesday, Qatar's foreign ministry reportedly released a statement on its website saying: "The Government of the Republic of Fiji requested the State of Qatar for mediation in the release of Fijian soldiers serving with peacekeeping forces detained in Syria."
Qatar is thought to have influence with the Nusra Front and is said to be responsible for persuading the militant group to release American journalist Peter Theo Curtis last month, who had been held hostage since 2012, according to a Reuters report.
Fiji, after gaining independence from Britain in 1970, has more soldiers on U.N. peacekeeping missions per capita than any other country. The effort provides the Fijian economy with crucial revenues besides bolstering its global image.