Fiji has sent mixed messages on whether its 45 United Nations peacekeepers that are being held captive by Syrian insurgents will be freed soon.
This morning, Fiji’s military chief said the country had received word from UN headquarters in New York that the Nusra Front had agreed to release the men later this week without any conditions or demands.
Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga said three senior Fijian military officers would arrive soon in the Golan Heights to receive the men.
Fiji’s government also placed similar messages on social media. But within hours, the messages were deleted and the government had replaced them with a bland statement: “All efforts to release the Fijian peacekeepers are continuing.”
Exactly what caused Fiji to back away from its earlier position was not immediately clear. But it is unlikely Fiji would have been given the green light to release any specific information by the UN, which often does not comment on sensitive captive situations until they are resolved.
Jon Greenway, a spokesman for UN peacekeeping, said it had nothing new to report.
The UN earlier said it is engaging with a wide range of parties within Syria, and is making every effort to ensure the safety and security of the peacekeepers.
There was no comment either from the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front on its social networks. The Nusra Front typically communicates via its Twitter feeds.
In his comments, Fiji’s military chief did not give a precise timetable or specifics of how the planned handover would take place.
But he said friendships that Fiji had built through peacekeeping over the years had contributed to the positive outcome, and “have not gone unnoticed by the Syrian people”.
Fijian government spokeswoman Sharon Smith Johns sent a tweet early today saying the troops would be released this week. She later deleted it. She could not be reached immediately for comment. The government also deleted a similar message from its Facebook page.
The Nusra Front had earlier listed three demands for releasing the Fijian peacekeepers it took captive on August 28.
The group had demanded to be taken off the UN terrorist list, wanted humanitarian aid delivered to parts of the Syrian capital Damascus, and wanted compensation for three of its fighters it says were killed in a shootout with UN officers.
Gen Brig Tikoitoga said three senior Fijian army officers, led by Land Force Commander Lieutenant Colonel Jone Kalouniwai, had left for Syria to receive the captive troops.
The Fijian peacekeepers had been stationed in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel. There has been heavy fighting in the area since Syrian rebels captured a border crossing near the abandoned town of Quneitra last month.
Fighters from al Qaida’s Syria branch abducted the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded two Filipino contingents serving as peacekeepers the following day. The Filipino troops later escaped.
The UN force, known as UNDOF, was established in May 1974 following intensified firing on the Israel-Syria border after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria has campaigned for decades for return of the land.
For nearly four decades, the UN monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria but the Golan Heights has increasingly become a battlefield in the more than three-year-old Syrian conflict.