NEW: Fiji's prime minister calls the peacekeepers heroes
The United Nations says they are in good condition
They had been captured by an al Qaeda affiliate
The 45 U.N. peacekeepers seized in the Golan Heights have been freed and are in good condition, the United Nations said Thursday.
The peacekeepers – all from Fiji – were captured two weeks ago by the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, in the buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied territory.
The personnel were handed over to the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force. A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said discussions had been ongoing with captors by “various parties” at “various levels” to obtain the peacekeepers’ release.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force has overseen a buffer zone in the Golan Heights since 1974 to maintain a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Fighting from Syria’s civil war spilled over into the buffer zone last week.
Al-Nusra Front used civilian cars to take the peacekeepers to a U.N. base on the Syrian side of the border, a CNN source said, and the troops walked about 200 meters to the Israeli-occupied Golan side. U.N. vehicles then took the troops to the U.N. observer force command center, the source said.
Ban’s spokesman said the secretary-general “appreciates the efforts of all concerned to secure their safe release.”
“The Secretary-General emphasizes to all parties the impartiality of United Nations peacekeepers,” the spokesman said. “The Secretary-General demands that all parties respect UNDOF’s mandate, freedom of movement and the safety and security of its personnel.”
Fiji’s prime minister described the peacekeepers as heroes in a statement Friday.
“They kept their cool and showed restraint under the most extreme circumstances imaginable. Because of their discipline, not one militant was killed and none of our soldiers were harmed,” Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said in a statement.
The peacekeepers will be debriefed, he said, and “obviously deserve a period of rest before they return to their duties.”
Bainimarama also praised the courage of the peacekeepers’ families.
“They were naturally distressed and anxious during this difficult time, but they never once questioned why their loved ones were sent to the Golan Heights in the first place,” he said. “They know better than anyone else that our mission is to bring peace and security to people living in troubled areas around the world.”
CNN’s Kareem Khadder and Chieu Luu contributed to this report.