The al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group fighting against government forces in Syria, has tied the release of the 44 Fijian UN peacekeepers it captured last week to the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Ghouta district surrounding Damascus, Al-Jazeera reported on Sunday.
The embattled Ghouta district, which is currently under the waning control of the Assad regime, made headlines last year when rockets tipped with sarin gas bombarded several rebel-held neighborhoods, killing hundreds of civilians and drawing the ire of the international community.
Al-Nusra alleged that a group of the Filipino peacekeepers who escaped into the Israeli Golan Heights Sunday morning were purposefully released after an agreement with the United Nations peacekeepers, a claim that contradicts a large number of news reports that assert the Filipino peacekeepers escaped under fire in a coordinated operation conducted under cover of darkness.
Despite the discrepancies, Reuters reported that Fiji has been given assurances that its soldiers were unharmed and that the two parties were conducting negotiations for the release of the peacekeeping force.
According to a statement uploaded on Saturday to a Twitter account associated with the al-Nusra Front, the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the UN ignoring “the daily shedding of the Muslims’ blood in Syria” and even colluding with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army “to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims” through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights. The Twitter post also included a picture of the captured Fijian outfit.
The Nusra Front has a detailed history of seizing hostages in exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.