Fiji may have jumped the gun by saying its 45 captured UN peacekeepers would soon be released

By , , on September 12, 2014


UNDOF soldiers examine the Israeli-Syrian border in Golan Heights, Israel. (Chameleons Eye / ShutterStock)
UNDOF soldiers examine the Israeli-Syrian border in Golan Heights, Israel. (Chameleons Eye / ShutterStock)

SUVA, Fiji—Fiji on Wednesday may have jumped the gun by announcing that its 45 United Nations peacekeepers who are being held captive by Syrian insurgents would be freed soon.

The South Pacific nation later tried to retract the comments, but by then they had been reported around the world.

At a Wednesday morning news conference in Suva, Fiji’s military chief said Fiji had been told by U.N. headquarters in New York that the Nusra Front had agreed to release the men later this week without any conditions or demands.

Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said three senior Fijian military officers would arrive soon in the Golan Heights to receive the men. Fiji’s government also announced the news on social media.

But within hours, the messages had been deleted and the government had replaced them with a bland statement: “All efforts to release the Fijian peacekeepers are continuing.”

Fijian military officials also phoned local news outlets asking them to retract their earlier stories.

Exactly what caused Fiji to back away from its initial comments wasn’t immediately clear. However, it is unlikely Fiji would have been given the green light to release any specific information by the U.N., which typically doesn’t comment on sensitive captive situations until they are resolved.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations had “nothing new to report on the situation concerning the detained Fijian peacekeepers.”

The U.N. earlier said it was engaging with a wide range of parties within Syria, and was making every effort to ensure the safety and security of the peacekeepers.

There was no comment either from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front Wednesday on its social networks. The Nusra Front typically communicates via its Twitter feeds.

Officials from Fiji and around the world will be hoping that Fiji’s initial statements will not jeopardize the negotiations.

The incident raises more questions about how well prepared Fiji’s tiny military force is to cope with what its facing in one of the world’s most volatile and dangerous regions. Fiji has acknowledged that some of its captured soldiers had no previous peacekeeping experience.

In his comments early Wednesday, Fiji’s military chief didn’t give a precise timetable or specifics of how the planned handover would take place. But he said friendships that Fiji had built through decades of peacekeeping efforts had contributed to the seemingly positive outcome, and “have not gone unnoticed by the Syrian people.”

He said three senior officers led by Land Force Commander Lt. Col. Jone Kalouniwai had left for Syria to meet the captive troops.

Fijian government spokeswoman Sharon Smith-Johns sent a tweet early Wednesday 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 Aug. 28.

The group had demanded to be taken off the U.N. 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 U.N. officers.

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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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.

Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to the report.