Did the UN pay ransom for Fijian peacekeepers?
UNITED NATIONS – Did the United Nations pay ransom to secure the release of the 45 kidnapped Fijian peacekeepers in the Golan Heights?
Despite the UN’s denials last month on the payment of ransom, the question again came up after the release of a report on Israeli TV showing video of the alleged transaction between the UN and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. The report was aired on Friday, October 10, almost a month after the Fijians were released.
The video of Channel 2 was in Hebrew but English-language websites like Haaretz.com picked up the story. Quoting the TV report, Haaretz said the footage supposedly showed that “the United Nations had Qatar pay $25 million to an Al-Qaeda affiliated Syrian group” near the Israel-Syria border on September 11.
Haaretz detailed the contents of the footage: “the video purports to show UN representatives crossing the border to Syria and waiting for the Nusra Front fighters, who later arrive in a convoy of white vehicles. The black-clad Syrian fighters can be purportedly seen conversing with the UN mediator, all while Israeli army soldiers are eyeing the proceedings from across the border, weapons drawn.”
The website then said that the video supposedly showed an Al Nusra Front member with a laptop “presumably checking if the $25 million in Qatari money [has] been deposited.”
Still quoting Channel 2, Haaretz reported that it took two hours before the fighters got confirmation of the bank transaction then “very quickly, drive away and the UN peacekeepers cross the border to the Israeli side.”
Asked about the video, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq reiterated the UN’s denial of paying ransom to Al Nusra, which the world body lists as a terrorist organization.
“What I can say affirmatively is that the United Nations does not pay ransoms. It did not pay ransom in this case and it also never encourages countries to pay ransom,” Haq said in a press briefing at the UN Headquarters in New York on Monday, October 13.
This was the same pronouncement of UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric in September, when he said that there was no demand, concession, or ransom for the Fijians.
Haq said he was also not aware of any country paying ransom to secure the release of the Fijian blue helmets.
The Fijian peacekeepers were under the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) deployed to the Golan Heights to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria after a 1973 war. The mission has been under siege for the last 3 years as the Syrian civil war spills over to the Golan, a strategic plateau between Israel and Syria.
In late August, Syrian rebels took the Fijians hostage and also ordered Filipino peacekeepers to surrender their weapons. Yet the Filipinos fought back, engaging the rebels in a 7-hour firefight, and executing a daring escape plan without the approval of their UN commander.
The escape sparked a controversy after Philippine military officials disclosed that they allowed their troops to defy the UNDOF chief’s order to surrender their arms.
The UN though denied that the order was given, and the commander initially accused the Filipinos of breaking the chain of command and “cowardice.”
Not ‘fraternizing’ with terrorists
The TV report said the supposed transaction contradicted the policy of the UN and Western leaders against paying ransoms and negotiating with terrorists. It even played a sound bite of British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking against ransoms.
This is not the first time allegations of ransom were tied to the release of the Fijian peacekeepers, freed after two weeks in captivity. Last month, Israeli i24 news website reported that Syrian opposition forces claimed that Qatar paid Al Nusra $20 million in ransom for the Fijians’ release.
Qatar has admitted brokering the release of the Fijians upon the request of the government of Fiji but was silent on the ransom.
“The efforts of the State of Qatar led to the successful release of the Fijian soldiers,” Qatar’s foreign ministry then said in a statement.
Fiji’s government said it had “no idea” about the reports of ransom but said its foreign minister met with his Qatari counterpart 24 hours before the release of the peacekeepers.
"The only assurance we got was from the Qatari Foreign Minister to my Foreign Minister giving the undertaking that the boys would be released within 24 hours after their discussion,” said Fiji’s foreign ministry.
Oil-rich Qatar has reportedly paid ransoms in the past, supposedly for the release of 13 nuns and 3 women Al Nusra held captive in March, and allegedly to negotiate the freedom of US journalist Peter Theo Curtis.
Yet the UN’s deputy spokesperson said there was no change in the organization’s policy on ransoms.
“I would object to the use of the word fraternizing. That’s not the case,” Haq said in response to a question.
“This is not a case where the UN paid ransom. As a policy, we are against paying ransoms.”
The UN has admitted that the Syrian rebels took the weapons, vehicles and equipment of the Fijian peacekeepers.
Hostage situation ‘more complicated’
Last week, UNDOF commander Lieutenant General Iqbal Singh Singha told the UN Security Council that the Syrian rebels warned the UN that they will detain more peacekeepers, and steal more vehicles “if presented another opportunity.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has cited the fate of the Fijians in defending the Filipino troops’ disputed decision to defy Singha. The Filipinos maintained that surrendering their weapons was no assurance they will not be kidnapped like the Fijians.
“When we are held hostage, that will all the more complicate the problem, and our ability to send a rescue force is really limited. And we will stand by this decision,” Aquino said in a speech criticizing the UN’s “mission impossible” two weeks ago.
The President said that the kidnappings of Filipinos last year, and the UN’s alleged failure to provide the troops enough weapons prompted him to withdraw Philippine troops, and to hold off on any decision to redeploy them to the Golan.
The pullout of the Filipino troops caused a drop in the Philippines’ ranking as a troop contributing country. From 33rd in August, it is now down to 48th in September, with 348 Filipino peacekeepers on active duty. – Rappler.com
Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is a 2014 fellow of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is in New York to cover the UN General Assembly, foreign policy, diplomacy, and world events.