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Al Qaeda affiliate releases U.N. peacekeepers captured in Syria

An image taken from a YouTube video released on Sept. 10 shows two Nusra Front leaders standing in front of captured U.N. peacekeepers.
An image taken from a YouTube video released on Sept. 10 shows two Nusra Front leaders standing in front of captured U.N. peacekeepers.
(AFP/Getty Images)

An Al Qaeda-affiliated faction operating in a southern province of Syria freed 45 United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Thursday, U.N. officials said.

The Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s “branch” in Syria, had captured the Fijian peacekeepers, members of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, in August at the Qunaiterah border crossing between Israel and Syria.

The news follows the release Wednesday of a 15-minute video by the Nusra Front’s official social media channel, in which two bespectacled bearded men standing before the peacekeepers promise that they will be freed.

Although the images could not be independently verified, a spokeswoman for the Fiji government confirmed that the soldiers shown in the video were the ones who were captured.

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One of the men, identified as Sheik Sami Aridi, says that although the militants had wanted to exchange the peacekeepers for prisoners held in government detention centers and for food and medical aid, they had dropped those conditions.

“During these events, we received word that a brother of ours ... had given those hostages safe passage,” says Aridi, gesturing to the man at his side. “So we must release those prisoners in application of the safe passage granted to those prisoners by this brother.”

In Sharia, or Islamic law, the granting of safe passage to an enemy combatant in times of conflict must be honored by all Muslims and obligates them to ensure the person’s safety.

The other man, a doctor with the nom de guerre Abu Mus’ab Barwi, then explains that Nusra Front fighters had been forced to use the peacekeepers’ position as a corridor to secure an enemy position.

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“I spoke to the [Fijian] captain ... and I explained that the aim was only to reduce casualties during this attack,” he says. He says he had promised the Fijians that they would not be hurt, and even that the contents of their headquarters would not be affected.

The video closes with a speech by a Fijian soldier -- Capt. Savenaca Rabuka, according to the Fijian government -- who says that “this is a happy day and we have been informed we will be released soon, and we are all very happy to be going home.”

The Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, has killed over 190,000 people and devastated wide swaths of the country. It has also destabilized Syria’s borders, including the Syrian-Israeli border near the Golan Heights. U.N. peacekeepers have been stationed in the area since 1974.

Bulos is a special correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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